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Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

Sigurd Olson Children's and Young Adult Literature ConferenceWe’re in the midst of award sea­son, when best of the year lists and spec­u­la­tion about award win­ners pro­lif­er­ate on the social media plat­forms swirling around chil­dren’s and teen books. In Novem­ber, we attend­ed the award cer­e­mo­ny at the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute’s Chil­dren and Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture Con­fer­ence, which takes place at North­land Col­lege in Ash­land, Wis­con­sin (on the awe-inspir­ing south shore of Lake Supe­ri­or). Inspired by the authors, nat­u­ral­ists, and librar­i­ans who speak at this con­fer­ence, we inter­viewed the ded­i­cat­ed com­mit­tee who select this impor­tant award each year.

How do you select the award­ed books?

We have a com­mit­tee of eight mem­bers who all have an inter­est in pro­mot­ing both the nat­ur­al world and high qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture for chil­dren. Because com­mit­tee mem­bers remain on the com­mit­tee from year to year we have a ded­i­cat­ed, knowl­edge­able group of pro­fes­sion­als. Each mem­ber first ranks books and then those results are tal­lied. The top ranked books becomes the focus of a com­mit­tee meet­ing. A final vote is tak­en with numer­i­cal rank­ings fol­low­ing that in-depth dis­cus­sion.

What are the cri­te­ria for this award?

The Sig­urd F. Olson Nature Writ­ing Award for Children’s Lit­er­a­ture is giv­en to a pub­lished children’s book of lit­er­ary nature writ­ing (non­fic­tion or fic­tion) that cap­tures the spir­it of the human rela­tion­ship with nature, and pro­motes the aware­ness, preser­va­tion, appre­ci­a­tion, or restora­tion of the nat­ur­al world for future gen­er­a­tions. (Here’s a full list of SONWA books since 1991.)

How do you gath­er the books?

Since most, if not all, pub­lish­ers are on Twit­ter, we estab­lished a SONWA Awards Twit­ter account two years ago (@sonwa_awards). For the past two years, we’ve pro­mot­ed the awards through our feed and by direct­ly tweet­ing to pub­lish­ers. We also post to the SOEI (Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute) Face­book feed peri­od­i­cal­ly.

We active­ly ask pub­lish­ers to sub­mit books that fit the cri­te­ria. Since we’re one of the few nature writ­ing awards for young adult and children’s lit­er­a­ture, the pub­lish­ers of this type of book are aware of us.

What selec­tion cri­te­ria do you apply?

First of all, as the name of the award sug­gests, the book has to be about some aspect of nature and writ­ten for chil­dren appro­pri­ate to the age group. In addi­tion, it has to be writ­ten in the year pri­or to the year the award is received.

After that, we look at:

  • Human Rela­tion­ships with Nat­ur­al World: Does the book cap­ture the spir­it of the human rela­tion­ship with nature?
  • Lit­er­ary Val­ue: Does the book take on ele­ments such as char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, metaphor, cli­max, allu­sion, theme, motif, etc?
  • Val­ues: Does the book pro­mote the val­ues for nature this award seeks to pro­mote for future gen­er­a­tions: aware­ness, preser­va­tion, appre­ci­a­tion, restora­tion?
  • Illus­tra­tions: When books meet all the above cri­te­ria, then illus­tra­tions and the art­work are con­sid­ered.

What is the impe­tus you feel for donat­ing your time to this award process?

Liv­ing in the North­woods, whether an out­door per­son or not, cre­ates a strong con­nec­tion to the earth and con­cern for its future. Our com­mit­tee is also well aware of how lit­er­a­cy can impact our human­i­ty. This award process allows us to com­mit to two efforts that are impor­tant to us. We hope the chain from writ­ers to pub­lish­ers will be val­i­dat­ed for their efforts. And we hope the read­er will be enriched in mul­ti­ple ways.

You are housed with­in, and spon­sored by, the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute. Why is this a good fit for a nature-writ­ing award?

The mis­sion of the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute is to pro­mote expe­ri­ences of wild­ness and won­der, while also work­ing to pro­tect wild­lands for future gen­er­a­tions. Lit­er­ary depic­tions and accounts of wild nature and the won­der it evokes in peo­ple often inspire read­ers to seek sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences, or, if they’ve already had those expe­ri­ences, the lit­er­ary works help to fur­ther affirm the val­ue of those expe­ri­ences.

Sig­urd F. Olson’s writ­ing is one of the rich­est and most influ­en­tial parts of his lega­cy, and the nature writ­ing award is one of the ways that we car­ry that lega­cy for­ward.

Northland College

You’ll find the Sig­urd F. Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute on the cam­pus of North­land Col­lege, Ash­land, Wis­con­son (in the fore­ground of this pho­to). That’s Lake Supe­ri­or in the back­ground.

Your focus was ini­tial­ly region­al­ly writ­ten adult books. Why did you devel­op a spe­cif­ic award for children’s books?

In part this was a cir­cum­stan­tial deci­sion: each year pub­lish­ers were sub­mit­ting children’s books, even though they didn’t meet the cri­te­ria we had estab­lished for the orig­i­nal adult award. Although we could not con­sid­er these sub­mis­sions for the adult award, we were impressed by their qual­i­ty and want­ed to rec­og­nize and pro­mote the work of the authors and illus­tra­tors of the children’s books.

Of course, we also rec­og­nize how impor­tant it is to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of chil­dren and the role that sto­ries can play in shap­ing their val­ues and visions for them­selves and their future. We want chil­dren to grow up hav­ing and valu­ing expe­ri­ences of wild­ness and won­der in their lives, and the children’s nature writ­ing award, as well as our children’s lit­er­a­ture con­fer­ence, help us to real­ize this goal.

Hav­ing read so many nature-themed children’s books, what trends are you notic­ing?

We do see top­ic trends from time to time. A few years ago it was whales and then water the next year. Just like pub­lish­ing in oth­er areas, the trends tend to fol­low what is going on in the world. This year we have a few hur­ri­cane books. Often times, grand­par­ents are depict­ed as nur­tur­er, guardian, or sto­ry­teller of nature.

 We are see­ing more diver­si­ty and inclu­sion. There are more pic­ture books with more white space but with detailed author notes or sup­ple­men­tal added val­ue. In recent year, non­fic­tion books for old­er read­ers will have side bars, graph­ics, cap­tioned pho­tos, and more along­side the main body. This can be either an enhance­ment or a dis­trac­tion.

What themes or top­ics do you wish were being addressed in children’s books?

We are always look­ing for books that have a strong rela­tion­ship to human inter­ac­tion with the nat­ur­al world. Books for old­er chil­dren with this aspect are not as read­i­ly avail­able. There are always some that stand out in this area but we would hap­pi­ly wel­come more.


Thank you for your com­mit­ment to read­ing and rec­om­mend­ing the very best in nature writ­ing for chil­dren and teens. Your focus on human inter­ac­tion with the nat­ur­al world is crit­i­cal to the lives of our chil­dren and our plan­et. Impor­tant work you’re doing!

[The sub­mis­sion dead­line for 2018 award con­sid­er­a­tion is Decem­ber 31, 2017. Learn more.]


Skinny Dip with Marsha Qualey

 Joni MitchellWhich celebri­ty, liv­ing or not, do you wish would invite you to a cof­fee shop?

Joni. And I’d come pre­pared with ques­tions about her paint­ing, not her music, because then, just maybe, she’d see beyond the gob­s­macked fan. Maybe she’d draw some­thing on a nap­kin for me.  

If she didn’t show, I’d be okay because I’d have a back-up date with Louisa May. 

buttered toastWhat’s your favorite late-night snack?

But­tered toast, but I can’t indulge that often now. Once upon a time, though, it was a night­ly thing. Then when I was diag­nosed with celi­ac dis­ease I went years with­out it because the bread I made or could find in stores just didn’t cut it. And then along came Udi’s.

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

I had the best best friend any qui­et, intro­vert­ed, book­ish girl could have. Mary was just the oppo­site of me, and when I was with her, adven­ture wasn’t just some­thing that hap­pened in books, it was some­thing we made togeth­er.

earthwormsOne first grade day we were walk­ing the six to sev­en blocks home for lunch. It had rained all morn­ing and we were excit­ed by all the earth­worms still on the side­walks. What if we gath­ered them all and sold them as bait? We began col­lect­ing the liveli­est ones and putting them in the pock­ets of our rain­coats. The pick­ings were grand and we didn’t notice the time pass. When we neared our hous­es, con­ve­nient­ly across the street from each oth­er, some­thing made us real­ize how late we were (A beck­on­ing fam­i­ly mem­ber? Church bells? Kids return­ing to school? This detail is lost.).  We rushed to our respec­tive homes for a quick lunch and met up again at her fam­i­ly car for a ride back to school — we were that late.

The sun was shin­ing and we were in a car and nei­ther of us wore a rain­coat. The sun pre­vailed for many days there­after. Only when at last we again need­ed our rain­coats, did either of us remem­ber the grand plan to make a seven-year-old’s for­tune by sell­ing worms.

The worms were dust in the pock­ets of our size 6x rain­coats. There’s an old woman’s somber metaphor about dreams in there some­where, but it wouldn’t have reg­is­tered with Mary and me.  We laughed then and we still laugh about it now.  

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

Night, now and for­ev­er.

What’s the strangest tourist attrac­tion you’ve vis­it­ed?

Mary Nohl HomeI love envi­ron­men­tal art — the con­crete and bot­tle con­struc­tions that an indi­vid­ual artist builds over the years on his or her prop­er­ty. Thanks to the John Michael Kohler Art Cen­ter in She­boy­gan, Wis­con­sin and the Kohler Foun­da­tion sev­er­al such instal­la­tions in Wis­con­sin have been pre­served. Any one of these would qual­i­fy as strange, and they are all worth a vis­it.


Libraries in the USA are at Mission Critical

There is not such a cra­dle of democ­ra­cy upon the earth as the Free Pub­lic Library, this repub­lic of let­ters, where nei­ther rank, office, nor wealth receives the slight­est con­sid­er­a­tion.” —Andrew Carnegie

Hamel Public Library, Minnesota

Hamel Pub­lic Library, Min­neso­ta

Libraries in the USA are at mis­sion crit­i­cal. Those who went before us worked hard to estab­lish free pub­lic libraries so we could have access to what we need to know. How can we let their lega­cy erode?

We’ve already seen our pub­lic school libraries dam­aged by bud­get short­falls in which libraries are deemed non-essen­tial and degreed librar­i­ans are con­sid­ered eas­i­ly replaced by a vol­un­teer.

Pub­lic libraries have suf­fered as well via con­sol­i­da­tion, replaced by pick-up-your-book kiosks, and out­right clo­sure.

For read­ers, it is under­stood how vital libraries are as a free source of edu­ca­tion, essen­tial ser­vices, and enter­tain­ment that might oth­er­wise be too expen­sive for fam­i­lies and indi­vid­u­als. Beyond books, pub­lic libraries offer free pro­gram­ming in edu­ca­tion, craft­ing, music and dance, cit­i­zen­ry, and busi­ness. Some libraries have become a place to check out sel­dom-need­ed but impor­tant items like fish­ing rods, elec­tric drills, sewing machines, and gar­den­ing tools.

gardening tools library

Read­ing is still at the heart of the library. The abil­i­ty to learn, whether by fic­tion or non­fic­tion, and the priv­i­lege of ask­ing a librar­i­an who can help you find what you need and what you don’t yet know that you need — that is a library. No com­put­er algo­rithm, no mat­ter how well-mean­ing, can take a librarian’s place.

Many of us take our pub­lic library for grant­ed. We walk a few blocks, ride our bikes, dri­ve a few miles or 30 miles to check out books and mag­a­zines. We can call the staff on the phone to make sure they know what we’re look­ing for and have it. If they don’t have it, they can order it from a library far, far away. This is one of the most reli­able ser­vices of being an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen.

This access to infor­ma­tion and resources was hard-won. The gen­er­a­tions before us rec­og­nized how vital books and read­ing are to a healthy, cit­i­zen-engaged coun­try.

Down Cut Shin CreekIn Down Cut Shin Creek: the Pack Horse Librar­i­ans of Ken­tucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Can­nel­la Schmitzer (Harp­er Collins, 2001), we learn the riv­et­ing true sto­ry of women, pri­mar­i­ly, who were hired by the Work Projects Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA) in 1935, dur­ing the height of the Depres­sion, to ride hors­es or pack mules to the often inac­ces­si­ble small com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­u­als of east­ern Ken­tucky. Even­tu­al­ly these librar­i­ans would serve more 100,000 peo­ple in 30 coun­ties as part of the Pack Horse Library Project. It’s an inspir­ing book. Read­ing the account of how impor­tant these librar­i­ans were because they knew their com­mu­ni­ties, their read­ers’ tastes, and felt a sense of duty … it’s eas­i­er to under­stand why libraries have been so vital in Amer­i­ca.

A con­gress­man from Ken­tucky, Carl D. Perkins, spon­sored the Library Ser­vices Act in 1956 “that made the first fed­er­al appro­pri­a­tions for library ser­vice.” More than like­ly, he was influ­enced by a Pack Horse Librar­i­an while he taught in rur­al Ken­tucky.

That Book WomanFor a pic­ture book about the Pack Horse Librar­i­ans, read Heather Henson’s That Book Woman, illus­trat­ed by David Small (Atheneum, 2008). Writ­ten by a Ken­tucky native, this sto­ry of Cal, liv­ing high in the Appalachi­an hills, depicts a young boy who wants noth­ing to do with read­ing until he real­izes the extra­or­di­nary lengths his Pack Horse Librar­i­an is achiev­ing to bring him books.

Books in a BoxIn north­ern climes, Stu­art Stotts wrote the mar­velous Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Trav­el­ing Libraries of Wis­con­sin (Big Val­ley Press, 2005). Lutie Stearns grew up near Mil­wau­kee, read­ing all the time. She is drawn to library ser­vice where, thank­ful­ly, she has big ideas. She teams up with Frank Hutchins (anoth­er big idea per­son, he start­ed the Wis­con­sin State For­est Depart­ment, and intro­duced East­er Seals to the Anti-Tuber­cu­lo­sis Asso­ci­a­tion) to cre­ate trav­el­ing libraries.

Melvil Dewey (he of the Dewey Dec­i­mal Sys­tem) intro­duced pub­licly-fund­ed trav­el­ing libraries in New York State in 1893. (The first trav­el­ing libraries were like­ly those in Scot­land and Wales in the ear­ly 1800s, but they were part of a school­ing sys­tem.)

The next year, Lutie and Frank peti­tioned lum­ber baron and Wis­con­sin state sen­a­tor James Stout to fund trav­el­ing libraries in Dunn Coun­ty. They want­ed him to intro­duce a bill in the leg­is­la­ture to fun the Wis­con­sin Free Library Com­mis­sion. You must read this book for the engross­ing expe­ri­ences Lutie encoun­tered as she tried to estab­lish trav­el­ing libraries, books in a box, around the state in post offices and stores.

Lat­er, Lutie would help cit­i­zens apply for funds from Andrew Carnegie to con­struct a library. These Carnegie libraries, some of which are still in use, brought edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment to gen­er­a­tions of cit­i­zens, tax­pay­er sup­port­ed but oth­er­wise free, through­out the Unit­ed States. Lutie Stearns could cel­e­brate the growth of books-in-a-box to full-fledged libraries through her per­sis­tent efforts and those of Frank Hutchins.

Dunn County

Demo­c­rat Print­ing Com­pa­ny — (1897) Free Trav­el­ing Libraries in Wis­con­sin: The Sto­ry of Their Growth, Pur­pos­es, and Devel­op­ment; with Accounts of a Few Kin­dred Move­ments

The desire to have a good influ­ence and a decent place to go, instead of the many saloons and dance halls, led me to vis­it one com­mu­ni­ty no less than twelve times before I could get the town pres­i­dent, also own­er of a dance hall, to appoint a library board.” (Lutie Stearns, Books in a Box, pg 49)

Twelve times? That’s deter­mi­na­tion.

Can we do less?


The ear­li­est libraries-on-wheels looked way cool­er than today’s book­mo­biles,” by Rose Eveleth,

Trav­el­ing libraries,” by Lar­ry T. Nix, Library His­to­ry Buff

The Scraps Book

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

Some­times I want to walk right into the pages of a book, know every­thing the author knows, share their life­time of expe­ri­ences, and be able to emu­late their cre­ativ­i­ty. Scraps: Notes from a Col­or­ful Life makes me feel that way. I’ve even enjoyed the feel­ing and tex­ture of the paper because I want in! For you, your fam­i­ly mem­bers, and friends who like to col­lect, to cre­ate, to fid­dle with this and that as you make some­thing, this is the book to have.… more

Alongside the Books We’ve Loved: Venom and the River

This week, join me as we con­tin­ue to look at books that orbit the con­stel­la­tions of chil­dren’s series books much-loved by adults: Louisa May Alcott’s books, the Lit­tle House books, the Anne of Green Gables books, and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Bet­sy-Tacy books. A brand new nov­el, Ven­om on the Riv­er, is now avail­able from my favorite young adult mys­tery author, Mar­sha Qua­ley.… more
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