Doorways to the Wild and Wondrous

Why I Write Books about Nature

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nel­son

I was a free-range kid before “free-range” was a thing. Rain, snow, wind, or shine, my sib­lings and I were out­side most every day leap­ing in pud­dles or leaf piles, fly­ing kites, pick­ing dan­de­lions, sail­ing maple whirligigs, and build­ing snow forts or sand cas­tles. “Go out­side and play” was the cho­rus to our child­hood. In fact, out­door play was our par­ents’ cure-all for almost every emo­tion­al upset or domes­tic prob­lem we encoun­tered. Tears? Bore­dom? Dis­agree­ments? Fights? A stress­ful school day or impos­si­ble home­work? Out­door play was the rem­e­dy. I admit there were lim­i­ta­tions to my par­ents’ some­times sin­gu­lar approach to child-rear­ing, and they met with resis­tance at times. How­ev­er, I can hon­est­ly say that 95 per­cent of the time, out­door play actu­al­ly was the right med­i­cine for me.

Today, writ­ing about nature and out­door play just feels as nat­ur­al and right to me as breath­ing. All my hap­py mem­o­ries of chas­ing frogs, climb­ing trees, and splash­ing in sum­mer lakes eas­i­ly inform the sto­ries I write. But more impor­tant­ly, even though I no longer live in a body that can leap and climb, I still love the expe­ri­ence of being out­doors, close to nature and then trans­lat­ing that expe­ri­ence into words that leap, climb, or even fly.

Nature (if only the bird­song I hear on a stroll around the block) brings me back to cen­ter. Trees and flow­ers, fire­flies and fox­es, snowflakes, sun­sets, the smell of fall­en leaves and rain wake up my spir­it and my sens­es. They cheer me when I am sad. They anchor me when I am anx­ious. They fill my imag­i­na­tion with col­or and motion and mis­chief and memories.

When I am in nature, I am nev­er lone­ly. I am nev­er bored. All the parts of me that hurt stop hurt­ing. All the things I can­not fix or make sense of cease to over­whelm me. Nature, wher­ev­er I can find it — a pock­et of trees in the city or vast val­leys of green — is where I am hap­pi­est and most whole. Nature feels like home, and it’s a home that’s filled with friends.

It’s also com­fort­ing to know that amid our pri­vate joys and sor­rows — amid our human con­structs and con­flicts — the Earth goes on beat­ing and buzzing and blos­som­ing. With or with­out us, oceans ebb and flow; birds fly; weath­er swirls across the sky; and every­where, even in the most improb­a­ble places, life grows. The vast­ness of nature reminds me of my small­ness, and rather than mak­ing me feel incon­se­quen­tial, it is a relief. I am one small ani­mal on a mag­nif­i­cent­ly com­plex plan­et — no more or less impor­tant than the spar­row or the oak tree. I have my pur­pose, but then again, so do the ant and the acorn.

So if I have a secret mis­sion (and I sup­pose that I do) it’s to share my love of nature — the mag­ic and beau­ty and free­dom and joy — with the chil­dren and adults who read my books. I hope my books will be doors to a wider and wilder world. Most espe­cial­ly, I hope they will be doors that open — hearts, minds, imag­i­na­tions, pas­sions — and doors that swing wide enough to pull read­ers through them into (lit­er­al) back­yards, neigh­bor­hood lots, city parks, and to beach­es, marsh­es, seashores, or forests. I hope my books inspire more play and curios­i­ty, more mud­dy boots and ripped jeans and fresh air. I hope read­ers will look through these book door­ways and delight in each love­ly, adven­tur­ous page and then head out­doors to splish-splash bare­foot­ed in the rain or fol­low the wild, eter­nal call of “frog­ness” and have adven­tures all their own.

What my par­ents knew implic­it­ly (like many par­ents before and since) is now well doc­u­ment­ed in psy­chol­o­gy. Nature grows hap­py kids. Dur­ing this Earth Week, as we con­sid­er how to mend and sus­tain our beau­ti­ful and del­i­cate plan­et, it is also good to remem­ber that nature grows envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Chil­dren, and adults of all ages, who feel gen­uine con­nec­tions and kin­ship with trees and frogs and owls and egrets, with fish in clear rivers and but­ter­flies in clean skies nat­u­ral­ly become good stew­ards to the Earth we share. Ulti­mate­ly, envi­ron­men­tal­ism is more about love than reason.

So I hope (and I know it’s an enor­mous hope) that my books play some small role in grow­ing hap­py chil­dren who know and love nature enough to take care of it — enough to feel as I do that nature is home. We are in it and of it. It is ours to cher­ish and explore. And it is heal­ing and hope-filled and wondrous.

While there are many beau­ti­ful pic­ture books which illu­mi­nate plants, ani­mals, and ecol­o­gy the fol­low­ing books are some child-cen­tered favorites that high­light the joy, free­dom, and won­der of being out­doors, in and of nature.

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David LaRochelle
2 years ago

Your essay makes me want to go out­side and play, Sarah, even if it is rain­ing right now!

Sarah Nelson
Reply to  David LaRochelle
2 years ago

Thank you so much, David! That is the best com­pli­ment. I hope you did go out­side and play – even in on this chilly, rainy day!

Debbie Tower
Debbie Tower
2 years ago

Per­fect­ly said! And what a won­drous child­hood indeed ❤️

Marie Hanson
Marie Hanson
1 year ago

Your essay brought me joy and the won­der of our beau­ti­ful plan­et. Thank you.