Good Guides: A booklist for young naturalists

When parents consider how a child learns to appreciate and understand the natural world, they often focus on time spent outdoors. But there can be a connection to time spent indoors: kids poring over descriptions and explanations, photographs and illustrations, as if learning in the laps of naturalists who came before. I recently talked with some experts about which guidebooks today are best at making that natural connection.

Steve Smith, co-author of AMC’s White Mountain Guide and several other AMC guidebooks, remembers being drawn to the “Golden Guide” series as a young boy growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. The Golden Guides, considered one of the first pocket-sized reference series, were originally conceived for children and written to an elementary school reading level, but became popular beginners’ guides for all ages. The first Golden Guide was published in 1949, on birds. That book led him to other nature guides, Smith recalled recently, including the Peterson Field Guide to Birds “and a massive old hardcover book called Birds of America, last published in 1940, with beautiful color plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. I would lose myself for hours in its thousand pages.” By age 12, Smith’s interest had taken flight from the page, as he became a serious birder. What he learned in the outdoors led him back to the guides.

Smith’s lifelong interest in guidebooks has circled back in other ways as well. He owns and runs The Mountain Wanderer, a bookstore devoted to the literature of the White Mountains, in Lincoln, N.H., where he displays some of the original Golden Guides in his book room. Although he doesn’t specialize in books for children, Smith also keeps an eye out for guides to inspire the next generation of naturalists. He carries three series on his shelves. Two are written for older children, age 10 and up, and follow the classic approach of most adult guides, by species: a new version of the Golden Guide series, re-issued by St. Martin’s Press in a modern format; and the Peterson First Guide series, condensed versions of the regular guides that focus on the most recognizable species. Smith also carries a nature-guide series for younger children, Take-Along Guides. The easy-to-follow, colorfully illustrated series explores nature from a child’s perspective, even in the three-part titles of the guides, such as Birds, Nests, and Eggs, and includes activities and projects. Smith said, “Parents seem to find the Take-Along Guides quite useful.”

A few miles from Smith’s bookstore, in the heart of New Hampshire’s lakes region, Amanda Gillen, marketing and visitor services manager for Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, has seen thousands of families and school groups come through the center. Gillen doesn’t mince words distinguishing between reference materials that engage children and those that don’t: Some guidebooks, mired in dry and boring minutiae, “can be such a yawn,” she said, while successful guides use simple, straightforward language to heighten kids’ experience of nature. Gillen recommends two such guidebooks, both of which also make excellent use of full-color photography.

Naturally Curious, by Vermont naturalist and educator Mary Holland, takes a seasonal approach to nature. “It’s focused on New England, with remarkably accurate month-by-month descriptions of the natural world,” Gillen said. Although the book isn’t marketed as a children’s guide, Gillen has seen it work for children of all ages: “Young children can take it in really small bits, like seeing a picture of a firefly and learning that it lights up,” she said. “They respond to the picture and the simple information. Older children can go back to the book and learn exactly how a firefly lights up.”

Nature’s Notes, written and photographed by sister-and-brother naturalists Judy Burris and Wayne Richards, offers “bite-sized learning and projects for all ages” in photo-heavy chapters. Gillen especially likes the book’s handy spiral binding, child-centric organization with chapters such as “A Day in the Park,” and its unerring sense of how children approach the natural world. The “What’s Bugging You” section has a close-up photo of maggots on a piece of meat, Gillen noted: “Kids love that stuff.”

The stuff George Heinrichs loved as a kid growing up in New Hampshire and Connecticut in the 1990s included reptiles and amphibians of all kinds. The future Galehead and Madison hutmaster spent hours reading a big book of snakes and hunting for toads and newts. In spring, he collected spring peeper egg masses and watched them grow. He also read AMC’s White Mountain Guide. “I loved how specific the advice was,” he recalled—“‘Turn left at the moss-covered glacial erratic’ or ‘Look for the rusted Studebaker with a pine tree in the passenger seat.’ Looking at the maps was just as pleasing, the short lines showing vast distances, the elevations, the names.” That combination, naturalist and hiker, has stayed with Heinrichs. “I still rate how good a hike is by the number of toads or frogs I see.”

Steve Smith, who helped write those descriptions, would no doubt be pleased by the power of a good book to guide a younger generation. He’s been there.

Nature guides mentioned in this article:

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog. This post was written by Kristen Laine. Photograph by iStock.

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