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Ten Books for Every Transformational Change Bookshelf

IT’S NOW INCREASINGLY APPRECIATED that our current system of political economy is failing us right and left. The search is on for a new economy and polity that can routinely deliver good results for people, place, and planet. Fortunately, a growing public interest in social and political transformation has been matched by an outpouring of exceptional books addressing what that means and how to accomplish it. My reading shelf is full with these books, and my goal here is to share some of my favorites with you.

From the outset, then, the list that follows reflects my preferences and biases, and, inevitably, the books that have somehow come to my attention. I made the tough decision to limit my selection to only books published from 2020 on. What follows are neither book reviews nor book summaries, but instead brief vignettes that should introduce the book and, I hope, whet appetites for more. I will start with books that deal with the sine qua non of transformative change, the movement from destructive values and habits of thought to a new consciousness appropriate for the situation ahead.

 

 

There’s no better place to begin than Tim Jackson’s Post Growth: Life After Capitalism (Polity Press, 2021). It’s a prosaic title for a passionate and poetic book that, among much else, seeks to shatter our enthrallment with the reigning economic paradigm. A key quote:

“The relentless pursuit of growth has driven us to the verge of ecological collapse, created unprecedented financial fragility, and precipitated the terrifying spectre of social instability. Capitalism has no answers to its own failings. . . . Capitalism’s core belief in eternal growth lies trembling in the ruins. The myth itself is moribund.”

 

 

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (Knopf Canada, 2020) aims at new values and visions that can lead us out of the current horribleness. Starting with a rejection of both despair and idle hope, he explores the paths to new and inclusive worldviews that can provide the wellspring of deep change. A key quote:

“Commanding hope recognizes the possibility of negative outcomes, but these outcomes aren’t seen as inevitable. Without succumbing to delusion and dishonesty, this hope keeps those negative emotions from penetrating into and infecting [our] vision of the future. . . . In this way, that vision can continue to sustain the powerful agency that can help make the vision real.”

 

 

 

Let’s shift now from hearts and minds to the critical process of envisioning alternative systems and developing specific ideas for change. The twenty-nine essays in The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy (James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier, eds., Routledge, 2020) cover possibilities ranging from twenty-first-century social democracy, to democratic ecosocialism, to alternatives for even deeper change, including full-blown reconstruction. A key quote:

“‘There is no alternative’ threatens us with expulsion to a barren desert if we dare to demand some set of arrangements that transcend the possibilities of our current capitalist configuration. But as the plenitude of alternative visions we have collected show, far from a desert, what we have is a thriving, diverse ecosystem.”

 

 

One necessary and fundamental transition is the shift from today’s runaway consumerism to new lifestyles drawing on what we know about human well-being, happiness, and fulfillment. Our admirable guide here is Kate Soper’s eloquent plea in Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism (Verso, 2020). A key quote:

“. . . [E]ven if it were possible to sustain the consumerist market indefinitely [which she seriously doubts], it would not enhance human pleasure or happiness. It would inhibit and stunt the discovery and development of other ways of meeting material needs and other sources of pleasure and satisfaction.”

 

 

Ever wonder why so much weight is put on co-ops as pillars of a new economy? If so, you will want to read Melissa Scanlan’s excellent Prosperity in the Fossil-Free Economy: Cooperatives and the Design of Sustainable Businesses (Yale, 2021). Drawing on careful case studies from the U.S. and Europe, her book convincingly presents the most attractive alternative to the now dominant investor-owned corporation. A key quote:

“Not only can cooperatives be successful organizational models for the transition to a fossil-free economy, they . . . offer the opportunity to reinvest surplus revenue in the community . . . exercise democratic governance . . . and provide greater equality in incomes.”

 

 

The current series “The Case for . . .” from Polity Press deserves our attention for its fine exploration of path-breaking policy directions that move toward a new order. These five books in the series show what I mean: Andrew Cumbers’s The Case for Economic Democracy, Anna Coote and Andrew Percy’s The Case for Universal Basic Services, Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill’s, The Case for Community Wealth Building, Louise Haagh’s The Case for Universal Basic Income, and Pavlina R. Tcherneva’s The Case for a Job Guarantee. These books and others in the series lay out paths to a future that is radically more egalitarian, caring, and community centered.

 

 

A first cousin to this Polity series is Peter Barnes’s exceptional Ours: The Case for Universal Property (Polity, 2021). Barnes begins with the insight that most of today’s productive capacity is not due to the entities that benefit overwhelmingly from it, but instead to the ongoing accretion of scientific and technical knowledge and access to Earth’s natural resources. He argues successfully that these storehouses of wealth rightfully belong to each of us, and he has ideas to move this realization into action. A key quote:

“Universal property is needed to supply what markets currently lack: self-regulating brakes on external harms and money pumps that lift everyone up. Without such additions, inequality will split us apart and nature will become our mortal enemy.”

 

 

Why is there enough money to save the economy but not the environment and its inhabitants? Modern monetary theory (MMT) is not so much a theory as a practical explanation for how money is generated and allocated in our economy today. In The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (PublicAffairs, 2020), Stephanie Kelton debunks the myths that have constrained federal spending in areas now desperately underfunded. A key quote:

“MMT teaches us that if we have the real resources we need—that is, if we have the building materials to fix our infrastructure, if we have people who want to become doctors, nurses, and teachers, if we can grow all the food we need—then the money can always be made available to accomplish our goals. That is the beauty of a sovereign currency.”

 

 

I feel that I have spent sixty years climbing a high hill only to find the younger Kate Aronoff already there on top. Her Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—and How We Fight Back (Bold Type Books, 2021) is a sustained, historically grounded reflection on how we got to this unfortunate moment and what that means for “how we fight.” Included in her prescriptions is public ownership of controlling shares in the fossil giants. A key quote:

“How capitalism has developed as an economic and belief system shapes not just the carbon content of the atmosphere but world governments’ continued inability to respond. . . . Without a major course correction, capitalism will define, for the worse, how the US deals with the consequences of having waited so long.”

 

 

With mainstream economics in tatters, at least outside the economics departments, many recognize the need for a new economics to help guide the transition ahead. One of the most seminal and relevant efforts to forge a new economics has progressed under the banner of “ecological economics.” (It’s badly misnamed.) Peter Victor’s stimulating book about one of its leading proponents, Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas (Routledge, 2021) engages with the many debates kicked off by the ever thoughtful Daly, including his sustained challenge to GDP growth. A key quote:

“Daly argues that there is a logical policy sequence starting with sustainable scale, followed by just distribution and then efficient allocation. . . . Mainstream economists, Daly says, concentrate too much on efficient allocation to the neglect of sustainable scale and just distribution.”

 

Read a conversation with Megan Mayhew Bergman and Gus Speth, as they discuss Speth’s newest book, They Knew: The U.S. Government’s Role in Causing the Climate Crisis

 

 

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This is a simple mosaic of all the list's book covers. Set on a dark blue background.

Fifteen Poetry Recommendations About Grief and Mourning for our Darkest Nights

 

IN THIS SEASON, lists like this often focus on celebration. And of course we hope you find plenty to celebrate as another year comes to an end, but for many, there will be a great deal to mourn. The books Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends recommend here offer ways to hold grief. Grief for people we have lost or people we might be losing, grief for an imperiled planet, for hardship, and change. “Poetry is the closest grief has to expression in language,” wrote Ilyse Kusnetz. Here are some books to open when nights are heavy and hard.

 

Camille Dungy Recommends:

 

 

 

Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz


In these electric meditations on living while dying, Ilyse Kusnetz reminds us of what it means to dearly love an impermanent world. Kusnetz was in treatment for cancer at the time she wrote Angel Bones. Sometimes, as in “Scientists Prove Chemo Brain is Real” and “Chemotherapy,” she writes directly about those treatments. In other poems (“A Notion of Time According to Physicists (After I Die)” and “I’ll Be Your Sweet Poltergeist”), she speaks frankly about her hopes for “When I don’t have a body anymore. When/ I’m ash and fragmented bone.” As much as this book is centered on the poet’s personal and ultimate loss, it is deeply grounded in the world around her. The universe around her, really, as there as many poems in Angel Bones about the magnificent continuity of stars and space and time as there are poems that center on blue herons, dragonflies, butterflies, bees, sanderlings, parakeets, and “the wild delight of wild things, my Love.” (Alice James Books)

 

 

Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


These self-portraits of a woman facing her own mother’s death drop us into a world of grief and recognition. A poet and photographer, Rachel Eliza Griffiths includes both her art forms in Seeing the Body, so there are pages of photographs in addition to all the book’s honest and revelatory poems. Refracting and refining her gaze page after page, Griffiths seems to be working toward seeing her own body, as well her dying-then-dead mother’s, within the changed landscape of grief.  (W. W. Norton)

 

 

Brightword by Kimberly Burwick


What if someone you love lives always on the brink of death? And what if that someone is your child? And what if that child worries about imminent and potential disaster, but not so much about their own heart failing as about the wreck we’ve wrought on the world? Brightword writes into the “green unowned awe” of existing in an impermanence that brightens the joy and terror of survival. Each of this book’s taut, five-couplet poems, which Burwick wrote in partnership with her son, convey a mother’s worry about her son’s congenitally precarious heart and the son’s worry about the environment and the many lives humans have imperiled. Not all grief writing has to be about what happens after loss, after death. I love this book for many reasons. One of them is how it handles the complications of being, of staying, alive. (Carnegie Mellon Press)

 

 

Prognosis by Jim Moore


Let me begin this brief review by quoting a few of Jim Moore’s lines: “If you are closer to being old / than you would like to be and slowness / begins to redefine the idea of difficulty / into something you would much rather / take a pass on, then it is time for the sky / to grow larger than the earth, than the sea even . . . ” Throughout this book, Moore embraces this matter-of-fact outlook on the world, an outlook that allows him to slow down and see possibilities for pleasure even when the prognosis is dim. Like a man walking through a blizzard with a bright orange snow shovel (“Useless Shovel”), Moore writes and writes again “Poems That Keep Me from Forgetting Who I Am.” Moore wrote Prognosis in Minneapolis during the COVID pandemic, a time of heightened calls for social justice, the turbulence of a presidential campaign, and ever-increasing recognition of ecological peril. All that is in these pages, as are several of Moore’s dead or dying family and friends and his growing awareness of his own proximity to death. And yet, “I am seventy-seven, have no time to waste,” Moore writes. “It is time for me too, even now, to begin again.” (Graywolf Press)

 

 

The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse by Sam Taylor


An elegy for the earth and for the poet’s mother. An excavation of the heart. A cry to recognize our culpability. A long cry. A heap of sorrow. This book burns with anger and exhaustion and disbelief and grief. It is at once a collage and a straight-forward narrative. There are images throughout, built of words and photographs and paintings. There are erasures and revisions and gradations of gray and deep blackness. Verse and prose. A short lecture on plastics and a “Fool’s Glossary.” Maybe it sounds like a mess when I describe it this way. The world is a mess and so are most of our hearts. The Book of Fools is one startling arresting effort to make sense of it all. (Negative Capability Press)

 

 

Goldenrod by Maggie Smith


Divorce is another kind of loss, which often brings its own kinds of grief. In Goldenrod, Maggie Smith applies her canny attention to the world around her as she learns to recalibrate her life on new terms. She’s not quite alone, the poems make this clear. She’s got her children and, also, there are “beams of light” supporting an invisible architecture all around her. As Goldenrod progresses, we walk with Smith as she learns to lean into this light. (Atria/One Signal Publishers)

 

 

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds by Peter Markus


Here are the last three lines of Peter Markus’s poem “Whatever It Was It Was an Honor, Call It a Privilege”: “The night my father died I had to brake three times / to avoid hitting an animal crossing in front of me. / One was an opossum. One was a deer. The third thing / I could not tell what it was. It happened that quick.” Throughout When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds, interconnections between the human heart and the greater-than-human world sing up from the pages, reminding me that the perception of loss is partially a failure of the imagination. Not to say that this book is intolerant of grief nor that it placates with empty platitudes. No. Not that. There is nothing empty or intolerant about how Markus weaves “the language of leaving” into everything he sees and says about the living world. (Wayne State University Press)

 

 

Forever by James Longenbach


Longenbach’s lyric poems hold in them the leaf-lost trees, rising waters, and salt-corroded bricks of a tenuously balanced life. It is hard, sometimes, to differentiate life from loss, love from longing, or Venice, Italy from the stream-strewn coastal stretches of New Jersey. Everything is connected in the taut, interwoven poems contained in Forever. (W.W. Norton)

 

 

A Forest of Names by Ian Boyden


In his role as a curator, Ian Boyden mounted a 2016 exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s Fault Line, in which Weiwei reckons with a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed thousands of people, 5,196 of whom were children. To cover up the catastrophe and the shoddy construction that exacerbated it, the Chinese government refused to disclose the names and identities of the dead. Ai Weiwei risked his own safety to uncover the children’s names, ages, and birthdates. Mounting the Fault Line exhibit, Boyden realized, “Each name brimmed with love, the hopes and dreams of parents, and a challenge from the children who bore them to not be forgotten or have the tragedy of their death be covered up.” For a year, Boyden worked with the names of children, names that translated into English as luminous little songs: “Swim the Lustrous Pool,” “Observe,” “Ripple,” “Ocean,” “Golden Duckweed,” “Long Flower,” “Sandbar Lord,” “Lustrous Field,” “Daylily,” “Daybreak Treasure,” “Flower Bud,” “Small Beauty,” “Poem Dream.” He wrote small, bright poems around each name, conveying the urgency of each child’s existence and the horror of each death. A Forest of Names collects 108 of these meditative memorials, ending with “Vast Swelling Waves”: “His absence an abyss. / Today, may his name overflow.” (Wesleyan University Press)

 

 

Revolutionary Letters, 50th Anniversary Edition by Diane Di Prima


The ferocity of these poems is intensely refreshing and instructive. One of the common questions in times of deep grief is What do I do with all this rage? Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters has clear and direct answers: “hoard matches, we aren’t good / at rubbing sticks together any more.” First published as part of City Light’s Pocket Poetry series in 1971, this fiftieth anniversary issue is an expanded edition of Di Prima’s life-long project, including poems written from 1968 until her death in 2020. Di Prima grieves for lost friends and lost leaders (by lost she sometimes means dead, and she sometimes means morally bankrupt). She worries about water and rivers and oil spills and both the first and second Gulf Wars. She mourns the fabricated divisions that keep good people from treating each other with mutual love and respect. Revolutionary Letters gives clear instructions about what to do with such grief and rage and worry: there are instructions on how and where to hold a protest, instructions on why guns won’t save the day, lists of what to carry in an emergency bag, instructions on how to train a body to survive with less food, and why it is best to avoid processed food entirely. For the reader who finds themself asking, What do I do with all this grief? These are practical poems with realistic answers. (City Lights Books)

 


 

Recommendations from Poet Friends:

 

 

Kimberly Burwick recommends The Solace is Not the Lullaby by Jill Osier


The English language, gorgeous as it is, often leaves us stranded. If there is a towline it may come from other cultures—or dead languages—which arrive from the past with an intricacy made fleetingly available as is the case in Jill Osier’s stunning The Solace is Not the Lullaby, winner of the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize in 2020. “Grief” is one of those words. In Japanese, the phrase “Mono No Aware” is closer to a sadness for the passing of time. In Old English, “Wintercearig” (literally translated “winter-care”) whose etymology is more akin to the strength of one’s own sadness as the years vanish. Osier writes, “The years have continued / to drop, like a steady rain, / their tiny stones.” It’s as if, miraculously, she has cocooned within these short lyrics a microcosm of the untranslatable. An elegy to the disappearance of small-town life across America, Osier confesses, “Something else beautiful: / I remembered, the town I’m from, / people there went about their day / and work as if they thought / no one was watching.” (Yale University Press)

 

 

Amanda Moore recommends Focal Point by Jenny Qi


Jenny Qi’s debut collection mourns a mother who has died young from cancer, and the focal point of the book’s grief shifts to behold other losses as well: loves and friendships, elements of the natural world, racial identity, the shifting landscape of San Francisco, and even strangers lost to acts of violence. Stylistically varied, Qi’s poems tend to their mourning through deft craft—a satisfying mix of mostly free verse that makes compelling use of the page—and careful recording of the living world: vanilla Chapstick, burning incense, “the spongy tang” of Ethiopian flatbread, neon dance floors, and sunsets over the Pacific, all of which are left to the grief-stricken to hold in memory and love. As both poet and cancer researcher, Qi searches for certainty and comfort by pivoting between the metaphysical and the practical, drawing on biology, literature, dreams, memories, and hope for the future in these exquisite poems that invite us into a transformative experience of our own grief by “teach[ing] us how to hold this weight.” (Steel Toe Books)

 

 

Ellen Bass recommends Obit by Victoria Chang


When her mother died, Victoria Chang wrote dozens of poems in the form of obituaries for all that was lost. In Obit she mourns the many and varied casualties of death, such as “My Mother’s Teeth,” “Approval,” “Oxygen,” “The Bees,” and several for herself,  “Victoria Chang.” The sensibility, imagery, strangeness, and imagination of these poems is mesmerizing. I rarely read poetry books all in one sitting from beginning to end, but I couldn’t put this down. I’ve returned to these poems over and over and they grow richer with each reading. In these times when we face so much death and loss these poems are especially meaningful. Victoria Chang turns grief into art.

 

 

Kimberly Burwick also recommends Spot Weather Forecast by Kevin Goodan


If Carpe diem translates to “seize the day,” then one must instead attribute Kevin Goodan’s Spot Weather Forecast more appropriately to Carpe omnia, or “seize everything.” In full disclosure, I have been married to Kevin Goodan for over a decade and know first-hand his complex relationship to fire. However convenient that fact, I find this book to be a staggering sixth collection. To Goodan, a former elite wildland firefighter, the body isn’t always metaphor, but a fierce articulation of the ecstatic threshold of pain—every muscle, bone and organ in perpetual scarification. “That is the passion of incineration, / Yes? The scabs they leave, / The scars they own / Are their homes in our bodies” he writes. There is grief yes, but it is a highly specific longing for one’s youth and the “feral, brunt-of-storm” comradery specific to each body in “hotline” against flame front. But Goodan doesn’t stop at the corporeal. The real genius of Spot Weather Forecast is that it also transforms the physical criterion for what a soul and the earth can withstand. “So many names in the smoke / As the inversion sloughs / Toward us, we who torched / this Eden, and will again.” (Alice James Books)

 

 

Amanda Moore also recommends West Portal by Ben Gucciardi 


In addition to being a neighborhood in San Francisco, West Portal is, as the book’s epigraph explains, “an entry into the afterworld—the westward motion of the soul after the body dies.” West is also the direction in which these stunning poems gesture, leaning ever-westward toward where sun sets each day, an occasion that, like the book, is marked by beauty as much as darkness. Winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, West Portal is a lamentation, born of mourning but conveyed in song, offering solace as it shines its light on loss. The poems function as portals themselves, providing passage into other lives, landscapes, and griefs, bringing us close to the speaker’s students—young men who bear physical and emotional scars of their youths—and his sister’s ghost, called upon for guidance and insight into the afterlife. Gucciardi’s speaker is both guide and fellow mourner, his own perspective and pain a wellspring for compassion and tenderness as the reader is ferried through a bevy of emotion. (The University of Utah Press)

 

Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here

 

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Review: The Shimmering Is All There Is by Heather Kohout

 

The Shimmering Is All There Is: On Nature, God, Science, and More
Heather Kohout
Texas A&M University Press, 2021. $27, 280 pages.

 

HAD HEATHER KOHOUT BEEN ALIVE during the Winter 2021 Texas deep freeze, which left millions with no running water or power for days, I suspect she would have written about it. The short essay would have touched on infrastructure, but it might also have drifted into other topics—climate change, big corporations, and perhaps a walk into the hills that surrounded her ranch, to see how the flora and fauna were bearing up under the cold. Her mind, a palace, simply couldn’t satisfy itself with one subject; to her, everything was related.

Texas A&M University Press posthumously published Kohout as part of their Women in Texas History series. The book features her Madroño Ranch website writings, edited and compiled by her husband, Martin Kohout, as well as a small selection of her poems. The Kohouts owned Madroño, a Center for Writing, Art, and the Environment, which was a fifteen-hundred acre ranch in Texas Hill Country, near Medina (the family sold it after she died). In the five years before Kohout’s death from cancer in 2014, she and her husband hosted a wide variety of artists, stewarded the land and raised bison, and traveled between their home in Austin, family in Colorado, and Madroño. The heat, dry dirt, wild boars, and rattlesnakes of Hill Country radiate from the pages. Interludes in other places still feel as if the Texas sun is drilling down from above.

Kohout was the daughter of a diplomat and granddaughter of a society woman and a state governor. Born to privilege, she spent her life thinking, writing and engaging with the world around her, giving back as a philanthropist, artist, teacher, and land steward. This could have made The Shimmering Is All There Is into the musings of a dilettante; it is not.

The short essays in this book range between a thousand and two thousand words, and flit effortlessly from idea to idea. Though they are the length of blog posts—one takes about ten minutes and would make good reading aloud—their subject matter bears deeper attention. Kohout is an excellent writer; musings about purple martins or dogs turn effortlessly into a treatise about sin or an investigation of human responsibility in the world. The result is not capricious but rather, as described by her son, a sustained and thoughtful “dialogue with the world, whether the world knew it or not.” That dialogue is in turns hilarious, reverent, frustrated, cajoling, and always intelligent.

Kohout’s primary preoccupation is thinking her way through the quandary of being alive (I refer to her in present tense, because the energy of her writing makes it hard to acknowledge that she left this world seven years ago). What is our relationship to the planet and its various species? How must we do better? What relation or concord can science and religion come to? Or science and environmentalism? To these questions she brings environmental writers who have asked similar questions—Wendell Berry, Catherine Mary Bateson, Emma Marris, Kathleen Dean Moore, John Muir, Bill McKibben, David Abram—and puts them in conversation with the heat and drought of Texas Hill Country, with literature (Milton, Pope, Gregory Orr), with religion, and with spirituality. Kohout read the Bible regularly in a group after church; her essays examine her own beliefs in the light of the connection she feels to place and her respect for scientific knowledge. However, the book never comes across as prescriptive. Instead, Kohout is persistent, self-deprecating and full of care for the ways in which people live various sorts of lives and endanger or tend to the world through their choices. She circles many of Texas’ contentious topics – gun ownership, ranching, hunting, politics, oil, religion, environmental management. Her charm, grace, and guileless curiosity keep the conversation and possibilities open. Part of each essay’s success is its lack of satisfaction with the answers that either science, environmentalism or religion are giving on their own.

Before Kohout’s final year of struggle with metastatic cancer of the spine and pelvis, her essays are lighter. She addresses her frustration with large corporations that threaten small farm producers like her family. She explores her love of and frustration with the various dogs she has owned, travel companions on her long walks into Texas Hill Country (Kohout’s family nickname was Deathmarch). There are dialogues with herself and with others on the concept of private property, how a community should react to climate change, and the role of beauty in the world as gratuitous and collaborative. This is not to say the essays are glib; writing of morality and beauty, she argues, “We have to love the world in order to preserve it. . . . when we know—really know—the beauty of nature, we know our own beauty and thus will be saved.” In a couple of sentences, she’s rolled together thinking on place, aesthetics, divinity, and environmental ethics. This happens all the time.

In the final third of the book, the tone deepens. Entries are more sporadic (the dates widen from once or twice a month to once or twice a season, with a six-month gap around what seems to be her terminal diagnosis). The essays and poems turn more and more to her essential topics: how to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her interest in other kinds of spirituality, and how her beliefs might clash or carry her through this unexpected turn toward death. In her poem, “Proof,” migrating monarchs unglue the “surface of reality” to expose “some thicker world beneath it,” while cicadas’ song collects, “dissolves,” and “gathers . . . to a single/pulse once more,” undoing “earth’s divide from heaven.” The essays segue from the lively “interstices that link the living and the dead,” to the Nicene Creed, which she struggles with even as she writes her own version, “. . . I believe this mostly at night, in poems and music, and when I don’t think too hard.” Again and again, she questions how to heal the world:

In a culture that so often measures itself by efficiencies of scale and measurable, predictable outcomes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to seek out irregular marriages between powerful and humble enterprises, between unlikely partners like science or technology and the arts, rather than seeking to separate them, as so often happens in times of economic stress. In these unlikely partnerings perhaps we’ll see some repair of our moth-eaten world.

Kohout provides a path forward, a way to heal the divisions that mark so many parts of America: by talking, by thinking, by conversing with and offering love for everything we do and don’t understand.

 

Maleea Acker is a poet, environmental journalist, and geography postdoctoral fellow in Victoria, BC.

 

 

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Thirty Children’s Picture Book Recommendations for the Holidays

 

WITH the holiday season upon us, you must—must!—be looking for the perfect picture books to give to your favorite children. And if you love Orion and compelling storytelling, if you love nature and raising or mentoring or auntunclegrandparentfriending the kids you hope will grow to heal the planet and in general be good humans, then I’ve got a list for you. These are some of the most charming, beautiful, moving, poetic, community-oriented, wonderstruck, goofy, creative, environmentally engaged books around. They are hand-picked stories my family reads again and again. There’s a book for every type of child here, and I hope you find something you can enjoy together. And of course, don’t forget to support your favorite indie bookstore or order through our Bookshop links below. 

 

 

 

FOR ASPIRING NATURALISTS . . . 

 

 

The Mushroom Fan Club by Elise Gravel

Trying to get your kid excited about foraging? Come for the turquoise elfcups, cat daperlings, giant puffballs, and cinnamon jellybabies, stay for the stinkhorn jokes. Gravel puts the fun in fungi. Pairs well with The Bug Club. And if you like those, spend some time with the unsung heroes of her Disgusting Critters series or Olga, the coolest girl scientist around.

 

 

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

For the grandchild you think spends too much time on screens, I give you On a Magical Do-Nothing Day. Disaster strikes when a bored child is kicked outside for the day only to drop their precious gaming device in a pond. But soon enough they are following snails, smelling mushrooms, drinking raindrops, and rolling down hills in a brand new world. 

 

 

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Three plucky girls hit the trail for a hike, their favorite thing to do. Along the way they make leaf baskets, follow animal tracks, take notes, get lost, cross creeks, carry each other, and eat too many berries. My ideal day in a nutshell. Sometimes I look up one-star reviews of books I enjoy, you know, to see what’s wrong with the world. One such comment griped that “nothing really happened” in the book. They so clearly missed the point. Abundant labels throughout help the reader learn native flora and fauna along the way. 

 

 

The Specific Ocean by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Katty Maurey

First she didn’t want to leave her friends in the city for summer vacation on the coast. Then she preferred to work through a moping schedule rather than go down to the boring beach. But ah, on the third day, “grumping down the path” she gets her first taste of ocean wonder. By the end, she never wants to leave. For the reluctant traveler waiting to have their world rocked by a new experience. I’m also partial to The Wish Tree

 

 

Mossy by Jan Brett

Mossy is a special turtle. A tiny wild garden grows upon her shell. When a naturalist discovers her one morning, she soon becomes the main attraction at the local natural history museum. Don’t worry, she eventually makes it back to her pond. Brett’s exquisitely detailed body of work speaks for itself—her illustrations are beyond, and I recommend everything she’s written. 

 


 

FOR ANIMAL LOVERS AND WILD THINGS . . . 

 

 

Hello, Hello by Brendan Wentzel

Go ahead and put every single one of Brendan’s books on your list. Think about how a flea regards a cat in They All Saw a Cat. Find out what a stone is to a seal in A Stone Sat Still. Then see how a chameleon is like a whale shark in Hello, Hello. Whether they are encouraging children to find commonalities between species or inhabit new perspectives in how they consider the world, you absolutely cannot go wrong with these colorful books.

 

 

Obsessive About Octopuses by Owen Davey

Did you know octopuses have three hearts and a donut-shaped brain? With awards for most fashionable (common blanket octopus), champion digger (southern sand octopus), and best on land (algae octopus), and chocked full of fabulous Charley Harper-esque illustrations in eye-popping tones, this book makes learning easy. See also Bonkers About Beetles, Fanatical About Frogs, Mad About Monkeys, and the rest of this bright reference series and check out Natural World while you’re at it. 

 

 

How to Talk to a Tiger. . . and Other Animals by Jason Bittel, illustrated by Kelsey Buzzell

Farting fish, flashing worms, headbanging birds, hissing roaches—really, need I say more? Learn how over a hundred different animals communicate by sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch and round out your social skills with this charming guide. 

 

 

Howl Like a Wolf by Kathleen Yale, illustrated by Kaley McKean


Yes, I’m including my own book. It’s fun! Learn all about the habits of skunks, bees, bowerbirds, and humpbacks. Follow their invitation to mimic movements, sounds, and behaviors as you sneak like a leopard, slide like a penguin, and joke like a raven. The paperback edition comes with eleven colorful, pop-out masks ready to get you into an animal mindset and expand your understanding of the animal kingdom.

 

 

Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey

A few years ago my mom sent a stack of old books from my childhood, reintroducing me to Kraus’s delightful work. Leo the tiger couldn’t do anything right. He couldn’t read, couldn’t draw, couldn’t eat without making a mess. His father worries, but his mother calls for patience: “A watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.” And of course, in his own good time, Leo flourishes. See also: Milton the Earlier Riser, Herman the Helper, and Owliver for solid content on insomniatic pandas, helpful crabs, and career-seeking owlets. 

 


 

FOR GOOFBALLS . . .

 

 

Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis

Backyard drama unfurls as a local insect community observes a plant grow, flower, and eventually wilt, all while commenting in their own fictional language. Booby voobeck! This book is a delight. My kids love it. For more of Ellis’s unique style, check out Home as well.

 

 

The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse by Mac Burnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen


“I may have been swallowed,” said the duck, “but I have no intention of being eaten.”

If you’re looking for something to get both children and adults guffawing, Burnett and Klassen are your dream team. Where else could you expect to find a duck and mouse spinning records and making soup in the belly of a wolf? I also highly recommend their Shape series and Klassen’s recent The Rock from the Sky.

 

 

Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe

For your little noisemaker, I recommend Pokko and the Drum. After gift-giving mishaps featuring slingshots, llamas, and giant balloons, Pokko’s parents give her a drum. Big mistake. Soon she’s banging away outside, leading a parade of motley racoons, rabbits, wolves, and mice through the forest. As the book’s official description boasts: this is “ a story about art, persistence, and a family of frogs living in a mushroom.” Oh, and the illustrations are bewitching.

 

 

I Am Bat by Morag Hood

The premise here is simple. Someone is stealing Bat’s cherries (a.k.a. Bat’s favorite of all things and reason for living), and Bat is real cheesed off about it. This book will bring the laughs, I promise. 

 

 

Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson

Meet Escargot, the spunky French snail on a mission to make himself your favorite animal while pursuing the salad (with some croutons and a light vinaigrette) at the end of the table, leaving in his wake a line of—NOT slime! but—shimmery trails of . . . shimmery stuff. Prepare to be charmed. Note: French accent is required.

 


 

FOR OLD SOULS AND DREAMERS . . . 

 

 

Frederick by Leo Lionni


Frederick the poet mouse shows us how one cannot live on bread alone in this children’s classic. While his friends gather food and supplies for the winter months, Frederick gathers colors and memories. This book has lived in my kid brain for decades, and I love passing its wisdom on to new generations. See also Swimmy, Geraldine, and so many of Lionni’s lovely characters. 

 

 

Bertolt by Jacques Goldstyn

For the generous, thoughtful child who loves trees and often plays alone, I recommend this poignant little gem. What do you do when your best friend is a tree who does not wake come spring? Love, loss, sorrow, joy, imagination, acceptance, lost mittens—it’s all here.

 

 

The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson


“Here lies a bird that is dead.” Brown is, of course, best known for the perineal bedtime juggernaut Goodnight Moon, but I like this more obscure offering too. Yeah, it’s about some kids who find a dead bird in the park, and yeah, they cry (“because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead”) but it’s the gentlest lesson in taking the time to notice and honor fallen animals. Robinson’s bright collage illustrations breathe new life into the tale. 

 

 

What Do You Know? by Aracelis Girmay, illustrated by Ariana Fields

“When love comes to the land and asks, what do you know: the land says, I know the joy of going on and on and on.” What do a farmer, a forest, a volcano, and a bear know about love? Poet Girmay and her sister Fields conjure hypnotic warmth over fields, under laundry lines, in whale eyes and beehives as they listen to how the world loves in this sweet book.

 

 

Me and My Fear by Francesa Sanna


So this one isn’t exactly environmentally engaged, but I love Sanna’s work so much (look for The Journey if you want to talk to your child about migrants and refugees), and let’s face it, fear is taking society to some dark places these days. When a girl moves to a new school in a new country with a new language, her Fear tries to isolate her at home. Friendship eventually comes through tenderness and sharing her fear with others. 

 


 

FOR FIREBRANDS AND FUTURE ACTIVISTS . . . 

 

 

Noodlephant by Jakob Kramer, illustrated by K-Fai Steele


Still bummed that Bernie Sanders isn’t president? Let me introduce you to Noodlephant, Rooville’s social justice heroine and pasta chef extraordinaire! Watch a ragtag band of animals fight the power in this hilarious, pointed, and pun-tastic tale of a community’s response to injustice. Continue the story and watch Noodlephant smash capitalism in Okapi Tale.

 

 

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade

A fearsome black snake burbling with dark poison threatens water and land until a young girl and her band of water protectors stand in its way. Winner of this year’s Caldecott Medal, and inspired by the many Indigenous-led protests across North America (and the world), this inspirational tale is a testament to the strength and resilience of Native people.

 

 

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts


When Sofia’s loving Abeulo gets injured on a pile of junk, she gets the idea to turn that dump into a park. When City Hall won’t listen, “that was the moment when Sofia first knew being brave means doing the thing you must do…,” she starts a petition, riles the community, and gets the job done. Beaty’s rhyming prose is great fun to read out loud, and Roberts’s illustrations are loaded with whimsical details. Meet more of Sofi’s sparky second grade classmates in Ada Twist, Scientist, Rosie Revere, Engineer, Iggy Peck, Architect, and Aaron Slater, Illustrator in this awesome series.

 


 

FOR KIDS WHO LOVE TO TRAVEL . . .

 

 

Everything and Everywhere by Marc Martin

Take a journey through landscapes and cultures in this detailed travel book. Curious readers can meander through cities, jungles, and beaches, or bop around foreign locations from Reykjavik to Ulaanbaatar, getting lost in chai markets and on subways, and between icebergs and flamingo flocks. Look for a special appearance by Bjork! Then pick up A River too.

 

 

Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

A father introduces his newborn son to planet Earth in Here We Are. The tour includes land, sea, air, space, and the many humans one might encounter. “We may all look different, act different and sound different . . . but don’t be fooled, we are all people.” Sincere, moving, and slyly funny, Jeffers’s book reminds us we’re all connected, and it’s best to be helpful and kind. If all that feels too heartfelt and precious, and you prefer to see an angry dude who yells at everyone get his comeuppance (and who doesn’t?), check out The Fate of Fausto.

 


 

FOR KIDS WHO STAY CLOSE TO HOME . . . 

 

 

Last Stop on Market Place by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson


CJ’s grumpy about waiting for the bus in the rain. Why doesn’t his family have a car? Or an iPod for that matter? Why do they walk around the dirty part of town? Lucky his patient Nana is ready with an encouraging answer at every turn, eager to help him see beauty and grace in the people and neighborhood around them. Carmela Full of Wishes is nice too. 

 

 

The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers


One morning, a boy wakes up to see the tree outside his house has become an owl. Someone is sneaking around this sad, gray little town at night, sculpting beautiful topiaries. As more and more wondrous creations appear—bunnies, dragons, parrots (rendered in gorgeous detailed illustrations)—the townspeople reinvest in their community, painting houses and hanging tire swings.  

 

 

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie Deenihan, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha

What would you do if you asked for a robot dog for your birthday but got a lemon tree instead? Hopefully, resist the urge to ditch it on someone’s doorstep and instead care for it through the seasons. You may be surprised how a seeming lemon of a gift can suddenly enrich your life.

Grandparents are sure to love this one. 

 

 

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Amos is a friendly old zookeeper who always makes time for his animal friends—reading to Owl, playing chess with Elephant, helping Rhinoceros blow his nose. One day he is too sick to come to work, and his friends come over (by bus, of course) to care for their caretaker. Pairs well with  Professional Crocodile by Giovanna Zoboli, illustrated by Mariachiara Di Girorgio, a wordless but expressive story about a croc commuting to his day job at the zoo.

 

 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Every winter I clean out my local post office of their special edition Snowy Day stamps just so I can sit with the image of Peter in his red snowsuit, rapt (and wrapped) in wonder. The first book featuring a Black child to win the Caldecott Medal, at nearly sixty years old, it’s been checked out of the New York Public Library system more than any other book. Peter, his boot prints in the snow, the snowball in this pocket, his unbridled joy in exploration, remain infinitely lovable. 

 

What would you add to this list?