The Little House Meets Urban Sprawl

Book Links: June/July 2001 (v. 10, no. 4)

by Gail Goss

"Once upon a time there was a Little House way out in the country. She was a pretty Little House and she was strong and well built. The man who built her so well said, 'This Little House shall never be sold for gold or silver.'" That is the beginning of Virginia Lee Burton's classic book
The Little House, written in 1942. The house in the story is built in the country but soon finds itself surrounded by the city, as, over the years, the city expands until it surrounds the house.

Little House has always been one of my favorite children's books. I have cherished memories of summers spent with my aunt and uncle in the country. They lived in a little house built by my uncle for Auntie Ni so she could be away from city noise and crowds. By the time I finished elementary school, the Seattle-Tacoma airport had been extensively expanded down the road from the house. Before long, the little house was surrounded by myriad other houses and busy roads. Today the house looks like the illustrations in Burton's book. It is an island of green in the middle of tall apartment buildings with planes flying overhead constantly. Gone are the tall trees that gave shade and rustled lightly in the wind, the quiet roads, and the wildlife--birds, fields of flowers, and occasional deer.

The ways land is used change over time. These changes often disrupt a healthy environment and alter the quality of life, as
The Little House illustrates. Recently an editor for the
Seattle Times used
The Little House as an example of why urban sprawl, which threatens so many rural areas, should be contained. Expansion, which happens so frequently and quickly today, destroys not only the countryside but also many historical neighborhoods, and natural animal and plant life, and often disturbs the environment. This can lead to floods, windstorms that topple unprotected trees, and water pollution.

Many children are concerned about these environmental changes to their world and have often been very effective in gaining attention for increased ecological awareness. Children's books that portray this unhindered growth and pollution provide excellent information that can lead to discussion and research activities on solutions.

This bibliography revolves around the topic of environmental changes brought on by development and expansion through population growth. I like to use the books in groups of 8 to 15 titles. The children study the collection to learn various aspects of the topic and then discuss their conclusions. The next step would be to plan activities that effect positive changes they would like to see happen.

Books about Land Changes over Time

Baker, Jeannie.
Window. 1993. 32p. Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-054830-0).

Preschool-Gr. 2. Changes in one neighborhood are charted in this wordless picture book as a mother and her son look through the bedroom window as he is growing up. When he is young, they see a beautiful wilderness, but, as he gets older, more and more buildings appear, roads are built, and, by the time he has children of his own, the landscape is that of a crowded city.

Burton, Virginia Lee.
The Little House. 1942; reissued 1978. 40p. Houghton, paper, $5.95 (0-395-25938-X).

Preschool-Gr. 2. This classic story of a house built in the country, and the city that grows out to meet it, won the 1943 Caldecott Medal. In the beginning, the little house sits atop a hill surrounded by apple trees, whose blossoms signal the coming of spring. The city is only a faint glow far away. But as time passes, more signs of the city appear: a road bringing carriages, then trucks, tall buildings, stores, and bright lights that obscure the nighttime sky. When the family living there moves, the little house is abandoned, until someone rescues it by returning it to the country.

Cherry, Lynne.
A River Ran Wild: An Environmental History. 1992. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-200542-0).

Gr. 1-3. Cherry documents the true story of the Nashua River, which runs through New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and its change from pristine to extremely polluted, as well as the campaign to return the river to its original state. Bright oranges and reds in the watercolor and colored-pencil drawings represent the paper factory dyes that destroyed the water, and contrast with the rich blues, greens, and browns of the adjoining land. Animals native to the area and relevant historical events are described.

Fleming, Denise.
Where Once There Was a Wood. 1996. 32p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-3761-6).

Preschool-Gr. 2. This story begins with a wood, a meadow, and a creek that support abundant wildlife, and ends with the encroachment of "houses side by side / twenty houses deep." The text is one long sentence of phrases stretched out over the pages, detailing what happens to this habitat. Unique illustrations pair paper with brightly colored cotton rag fibers. Excellent sources at the end of the book (geared toward adults or older children) explain how to provide a backyard habitat for local wildlife.

Geisert, Bonnie.
River Town. Illus. by Arthur Geisert. 1999. 32p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-90891-4).

Gr. 1-3. Pen-and-ink drawings display a panoramic view of life in one small town over the course of a year. One or two sentences under each drawing describe the season depicted and the activities taking place at that time. Additionally, readers will see that with each season the river affects the town differently; in winter, townspeople are seen ice fishing, while in summer the river becomes menacing as waters rise near flood level. Also see the Geiserts' latest title,
Desert Town (Houghton, 2001).

Jackson, Ellen.
Turn of the Century. 1998. 32p. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (0-88106-369-X).

Gr. 3-5. This book relates how people have lived from A.D. 1000 up to the year 2000. Each two-page spread presents the first-person narrative of either a British child (one every 100 years from 1000 through 1600) or an American child (one every 100 years from 1700 through 2000). For example, on one spread we see Eleanor, a nine-year-old girl living in a nunnery in 1100, praying in one room, doing chores in another, and visiting the tower room. Included are a preface and author's note, which contain information about the different eras, calendars, and dating, as well as an extensive bibliography.

Lorenz, Albert and Joy Schleh.
House: Showing How People Have Lived throughout History with Examples Drawn from the Lives of Legendary Men and Women. 1998. 48p. Abrams, $17.95 (0-8109-1196-5).

Gr. 3-5. Examples of the various types of dwellings people have lived in throughout history are described through concise text and wonderfully detailed drawings. Dwellings featured range from a typical urban apartment and a medieval serf's cabin to famous homes like Versailles, Givergny, and Monticello. In expanding the definition of home to include any structure in which people live for a time, the book displays such nontraditional homes as a slave ship, the space station Mir, and the human womb.

Lyon, George Ella.
Who Came down That Road? Illus. by Peter Catalanotto. 1992. 32p. Scholastic/Orchard, paper, $5.95 (0-531-07073-5).

Preschool-Gr. 2. A mother shares with her child stories about the different people and animals who have traveled down their road throughout history. She tells her child how his great-grandparents traveled that path and then continues back to when Civil War soldiers trod the ground, to a time when woolly mammoths existed, and finally to the creation of all that they see before them. The abstract nature of the last concept may be difficult for younger children, but the simple text and the double-page watercolors will give children a sense of the continuity of life.

Millard, Anne.
A Street through Time: A 12,000 Year Walk through History. Illus. by Steve Noon. 1999. 32p. DK, $16.95 (0-7894-3426-1).

Gr. 3-6. The story begins in 10,000 B.C. with a nomadic camp of hunters and gatherers living by a river. Through the centuries, this location is transformed into a village, a town, and finally a modern city. Each double-page spread contains informative illustrations that provide clues to what life was like during that era; an ancient Roman town, a medieval village, and a sixteenth-century town ravaged by the plague all reveal the dramatic changes that a place undergoes over time. Text in the borders explains the forces that caused these changes.

Peet, Bill.
The Wump World. 1974. 48p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-19841-0); paper, $6.95 (0-395-31129-2).

K-Gr. 3. The Wumps live in a lovely world of grassy meadows and leafy green trees until they are invaded by potbellied monsters known as Pollutians who bulldoze everything to build their city. But the Pollutians soon exhaust the resources of this planet (as they did with their last one) and move on. The Wumps return, horrified by the destruction they see, but become hopeful when they find a small patch of grass and begin to restore their home.

Books about Land Reversion

High, Linda Oatman.
Barn Savers. Illus. by Ted Lewin. 1999. 32p. Boyds Mills, $15.95 (1-56397-403-7).

Preschool-Gr. 2. Rising at dawn, a boy helps his father tear down a barn and salvage its parts for future buildings. Lewin's dramatic spreads give energy to this slice-of-life story about the respect a father and son have for the old building.

Macaulay, David.
Unbuilding. 1980. 78p. Houghton, $18 (0-395-29457-6); paper, $8.95 (0-395-45425-5).

Gr. 3-5. This tale speculates about what it would take to dismantle the Empire State Building. When a foreigner buys the building, he decides he'd like to have it moved closer to his home. In describing (in rich detail) how such an enormous building would be dismantled, the book provides insight into the complex workings of large structures. Macaulay's signature meticulously detailed drawings accompany the text.

Manning, Mick.
A Ruined House. 1994. 32p. Candlewick, $14.95 (1-56402-453-9); paper, $5.99 (1-56402-936-0).

K-Gr. 3. This is the story of a sixteenth-century farmhouse that was deserted and, over time, is reclaimed by nature. Information is given about how natural forces change the materials of the house, affecting the ecology, and enabling wild plants and creatures to inhabit the home. Manning also describes the process of recovering historical sites.

Books about Saving the Environment

Asch, Frank.
The Earth and I. 1994. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $15 (0-15-200443-2).

Preschool-Gr. 1. A young boy celebrates his friend, the earth. Like other friends, they do things together: go for long walks, talk together, sing and dance, and, of course, play. Simply drawn shapes are executed in rainbow-colored watercolor washes.

Bunting, Eve.
Someday a Tree. Illus. by Ronald Himler. 1993. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-61309-4); paper, $5.95 (0-395-76478-5).

K-Gr. 3. Alice holds dear an ancient oak tree; she loves to picnic with her mother underneath its leafy branches, listening to stories about when her parents first bought the land and how she was christened there. Then the tree is poisoned by illegally dumped chemicals, and it begins to die. Despite many noble efforts to save the old oak, the tree dies. Himler's soft watercolor illustrations poignantly show the transformation from a vibrant tree to a gray, bare, and withered one. The story ends on a happier note when Alice learns that the tree can live on by the planting of acorn seeds she gathered from it.

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac.
Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. Illus. by Carol Wood and John Kahionhes Fadden. 1997. 286p. Fulcrum, paper, $19.95 (1-55591-385-7).

Gr. 1-4. Twenty-three traditional Native American tales encourage an understanding of and a respect for the environment. Accompanying the tales is an index of activities (arranged by subject) related to various aspects of preserving our natural resources. A helpful glossary and pronunciation guide to Native American words and names are included.

Cherry, Lynne.
The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest. 1990. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, paper, $16 (0-15-200520-X).

Preschool-Gr. 3. A man cutting down an immense kapok tree in the Brazilian rain forest takes a break from his work and falls asleep. As he sleeps, the animals living in the tree speak to him in a dream, pleading that he not destroy their home. Upon waking, the tree cutter decides to save the kapok tree after all he learned in his dream about the wildlife the jungle canopy supports.

De Munn, Michael.
The Earth Is Good: A Chant in Praise of Nature. Illus. by John McMullan. 1999. 32p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-35010-2).

Preschool-Gr. 2. This simple text depicting a boy enjoying the sun, earth, trees, and the environment can be used with young children as a chant. While the text is extremely simple, the watercolor paintings provide action as the boy runs and jumps and laughs while playing outdoors.

Leger, Diane.
Maxine's Tree. 1999. 32p. Orca, paper, $5.95 (0-920501-38-9).

Gr. 1-4. On a trip through the rain forest on Vancouver Island, five-year-old Maxine sees a barren patch of land where a group of trees once stood. Upset at the thought that the same could happen to her favorite tree, a Sitka spruce, Maxine decides to give her tree a name. If people know the tree is loved, she reasons, they will not cut it down. She places a placard by her tree indicating its name. Soon, others follow suit and the forest is filled with signs.

Luenn, Nancy.
Mother Earth. Illus. by Neil Waldman. 1992. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $15 (0-689-31668-2); Aladdin, paper, $5.95 (0-689-80164-5).

Preschool-Gr. 2. This book lovingly describes our planet with the traditional image of the earth as mother, nurturing her inhabitants. In soft colors, illustrations depict the cycles of life-evolution, the seasons, day and night. The book begins with an image of the earth from space and then draws the reader in, showing life up close, before then returning to space to view the planet, nicely illustrating how caring for animals, plants, people, and the land honors mother earth.

Luenn, Nancy.
Squish! A Wetland Walk. Illus. by Ronald Himler. 1994. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-31842-1).

Preschool-Gr. 2. A boy and his grandfather discover all the activity taking place in a wetland habitat, as well as the wetlands' value to both humans and animals. Luenn uses simple language in the narrative, making this a good choice for younger children. Himler provides watercolors that capture the beauty of the wetlands and their inhabitants.

MacLachlan, Patricia.
All the Places to Love. 1994. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-021098-2).

K-Gr. 2. In an idyllic rural setting, a family shares all its favorite places on the farm and in the countryside. As the family prepares to welcome a baby, the oldest child, Eli, realizes that love for one's surroundings and the comforts of family and friends are what make a place "home," a discovery he shares with his sister Sylvie after she is born. Brightly colored full-page paintings show the fields, streams, and farm on which the family lives in extremely realistic detail, though the world depicted is idealized.

Udry. Janice May.
A Tree Is Nice. Illus. by Marc Simont. 1956; reissued 1976. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-06-026155-2); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-443147-9).

K-Gr. 3. This 1957 Caldecott Medal winner describes the beauty of trees, but also explores why they are so important to us. Udry offers scientific facts as reasons trees are nice (they provide food), but also mentions subjective reasons that should appeal to children (they hold tree houses). Simont's winning illustrations, some in color, some in black-and-white, present a diverse portrait.

Van Allsburg, Chris.
Just a Dream. 1990. 48p. Houghton, $17.95 (0-395-53308-2).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Walter doesn't treat the earth with respect, choosing to throw trash on the ground and not recycle. Then Walter's bed travels in his dream into an overcrowded and polluted future. The dream inspires him to plant and care for a tree so that he might help prevent such a future.


  • After reading Cherry's
    A River Ran Wild, have children create their own written time line of a land area close to them that has been negatively affected by growth and environmental changes.
  • As an alternative to a written time line, combine
    A River Ran Wild with Baker's
    Window or Fleming's
    Where Once There Was a Wood and have children use them as models for illustrating a progression of changes they have witnessed taking place in their own neighborhood.
  • Have children research the vegetation listed in the backyard wildlife habitat section in Fleming's
    Where Once There Was a Wood to determine whether it grows well in their climate. Then plan and construct a backyard wildlife habitat. The list of sources and organizations at the end of the book also offers students an opportunity to learn about obtaining information through effective letter writing.
  • After reading Peet's
    The Wump World and Manning's
    A Ruined House, have children write a list of thing the Wumps could do to reclaim their "grassy meadow and clumps of leafy green trees." Manning's book can be used for inspiration.

Web Connections

  • This page on the
    Audubon Society Web site includes excellent information for children about birds and their environments. The "For Teachers" section includes special projects for use in the classroom.
  • Search the
    SchoolWorld Internet Education site for environmental projects connecting with other schools and classrooms in a variety of locations around the world.
  • In the Kid's Pages of the Web site of the
    National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, children can participate in a science spelling bee, do science word scrambles, or browse the environmental art and poetry gallery. The section "Cool Links for Fun and Education" contains a very long list of environmental sites online.
  • Visit the Smithsonian Institution's Web site for environmental education programs for kids through the
    Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The SERC focuses on the ecology of the areas in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Gail Goss is a professor of children's literature and reading methods at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.