Before making the jump to academia, I spent several years as a children’s librarian. It was wonderful. Every day I got to sing, dance, and read children’s books.
And let me say, I ADORE children’s books. Even though it’s no longer part of my job, I still love reading them with my own children. They are such an amazing way to share new ideas, explore the world, and talk about tough topics. Picture books especially are an accessible way to introduce children of all ages to complex issues.
Whether your family is new to Zero Waste Living or you've been at it for some time, including kids in the conversation is a great way to help them understand why we choose to live the way we do, and hopefully, encourage them to continue to pursue a sustainable lifestyle when they become teens and adults.
So whether your children are itty bitty toddlers or bumping up against the preteen years, here are my top ten picture books for discussing Zero Waste Living and with your kids. You may be surprised to see that they don’t all laser focus on issues like waste and pollution. While books like these are definitely very important (and are on this list), I also like to incorporate books that are fun, silly, or imaginative and then bring the conversation back to themes of sustainability and environmentalism.
I encourage you to see if you can check these books out from your local library. After all, the library is the original resource-sharing institution.
10 Must-Read Picture Books for Zero Waste Kids:
This true story is a great choice for elementary-school-aged children. It tells the story of children growing up in a town built on a landfill in Paraguay. A music teacher wants to start teaching the children to play instruments, but there is no money to buy them, so instead, he starts building them instruments made from the trash. Eventually, the Children’s Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay becomes famous, going on a world tour to share their story.
Themes to discuss: This story opens the door to discuss how waste and pollution have real effects on people’s lives throughout the world. We all need to reduce our waste so we don’t end up having towns built on landfills. We can also repurpose items in beautiful and creative ways so they don’t end up in the trash.
Bonus Activities: Use old containers and packaging to make your own upcycled instruments.
Another true story, this book tells the little-known story of a man in New York who filled a barge full of garbage in hopes of taking it elsewhere to use it to generate electricity. Unfortunately, no one will let him come ashore with his Garbage Barge, which travels 6000 and becomes a worldwide laughing stock before it is finally allowed to dock.
Themes to discuss: The title says it all: our problem with stuff. While the book points to recycling as a primary waste solution, there are plenty of opportunities in this humorous narrative to talk about the other "R's" including reducing our waste in the first place. Because the book takes place in 1987, ask children to compare and contrast aspects of our waste problem that have gotten better or worse over the years.
Bonus Activities: The backmatter of the book includes ideas for reusing trash, so try one of them out! Also in the book (and in real life) Green Peace put a banner on the Barge that said, “Next Time Try Recycling.” Ask children, what else could we put on the banner? For example: Next time try COMPOSTING!
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming
While it doesn’t address pollution and waste directly, this fabulous book offers a look at the lifecycle of the honeybee that will fascinate both younger and older children. Learning more about the natural world will help children understand what is at stake if we do not take steps to take care of the natural world. Plus, just wait until you find out how much work it takes for a bee to produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey!
Themes to discuss: Younger children can understand that pollution and trash harm bees and other living creatures. Older children can discuss more in-depth how bees are important to ecosystems and to our food system. You can compare the amount of work it takes for bees to produce honey with the work it takes for people to produce the things we use as humans. Because everything we make takes so much time and resources, we shouldn’t throw things away or be wasteful.
Bonus Activity: Plant a pollinator garden! Get some local wildflower seeds and plant them to attract local bees and other pollinators.
Tidy by Emily Gravett
This adorable picture book with a gentle environmental message is great for older toddlers and younger elementary-age kids. In this story, Pete the Badger likes to keep the forest tidy. Unfortunately, this spirals out of control until he cleans everything up to the point of destroying it. Will he be able to put things right again?
Themes to discuss: Ask children what Pete did right and where he went wrong. While picking up our human-made trash is really important to keep our world “tidy” we should leave our trees and forests alone to be wild instead of creating order by cutting them down and paving them over.
Bonus Activity: Go to a nearby hiking trail or path and “Tidy Up” by picking up trash.
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis:
The little rabbit in this book wants you to know that the box she is sitting in is... NOT box. It’s a racecar or a rocketship or anything else her imagination can dream up. This cute and fun read will remind children how fun it is to play with a box (as if they needed any reminding).
Themes to Discuss: This book can easily be tied back to themes of repurposing and reusing items. It’s also an opportunity to talk about living with less because through imagination and innovation, we can use a single item in many different ways.
Bonus Activity: Play with a box! Find a box big or small and repurpose it or simply use it to play pretend together.
We are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrome
Many reviews for this book include words like “powerful” and “inspiring” and for good reason. This book is a call to action for all children (and all people), reminding us all that we have the power to stand up and protect the earth’s water resources. This book also pays tribute to indigenous people’s resilience and strength in the face of adversity.
Themes to Discuss: There is a lot to talk about in this book. A few ideas include discussion of pollution and threats to our various waterways and ways that we ourselves can take action against these threats.
Bonus Activity: Research the events that inspired this book, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested the Dakota Access pipeline.
Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner:
Planting seeds and watching them grow is only part of the garden’s story. There is an entire world of worms, bugs, snakes, and other creatures at work beneath this soil. The simple text and beautiful illustrations provide a wonderful tour of a garden throughout the year.
Themes to Discuss: Talk about composting and the creatures (such as worms) at work that break down our food scraps into nutrients for the garden.
Bonus activity: Visit a garden and try to spot the creatures shown in the book. If your environment has different animals, spot as many native species as you can.
The Sea Book by Charlotte Milner
In addition to being chock full of fascinating information about oceans and ocean creatures, this book also talks about the threats that are facing our oceans in an accessible way, and ways we can all work to keep our oceans cleaner.
Themes to discuss: Pollution and plastic waste rank high on the list of things to talk about in relation to this book. However, I think it is important to also take time to talk about how amazing and fascinating the ocean’s creatures truly are, and how important oceans are to all life on earth, no matter where you live.
Bonus Activity: Take a virtual art tour of art made from plastic pulled from the ocean at https://washedashore.org/photos/. While the art is beautiful, it helps give children visualize just how much plastic is really floating around out there.
Greta and the Giants by Zoe Tucker
This picture book featuring Greta Thunberg reads like a modern environmental fairy tale: Giants come to threaten the forest and its inhabitants, chopping down trees to make room for bigger and bigger houses until a young girl (Greta) has an idea to save them all.
Themes to Discuss: In addition to discussing the environmental themes of the book surrounding resource conservation and waste, it is also a great opportunity to talk about Greta as a real person who, as a teenager, took on the world to fight climate change.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers
This book is a gentle look at planet earth as a small place in the universe, where all people must coexist and care for our little planet together. It is written as a guide to help us all be more understanding and to be better neighbors to each other.
Themes to discuss: This book touches on universal connectedness, how we are all neighbors who owe each other kindness and respect. By taking care not to use too many resources or produce too much waste, we show our respect and caring for other people and all creatures on our planet.
Bonus Activity: Stargazing! Although this book is about planet earth, the earth is presented on a cosmic scale. Go outside and try to identify stars, constellations, and planets to help children understand the earth is one small place in the universe, but it is our home, and it is our job to care for it.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these books with your children, or if you have any other favorite children’s books for Zero Waste kids. Happy reading!