Last week, I introduced you to Jannifer Powelson, a conservationist and author from the Midwest, who has written a series of children’s books about nature and conservation. There’s a real need for all of us today to make sure we’re reconnecting with the natural world. In our fast-paced modern life, many of us live in urban areas and think of nature as something we have to drive somewhere to see.
Jan works at a conservation district, where she interacts with children and educates them about the natural world. In addition, she’s the author of the Rachel and Sammy books, where she gives kids a closer look at aspects of nature that some may not see otherwise. I was interested in Jan’s approach to nature and writing for children, so she kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me. I hope you enjoy her responses.
Don: How did you develop an interest in nature and conservancy?
Jan: I grew up on a farm and worked and played outdoors almost every day. As a farmer, my dad instilled the importance of conserving soil and other natural resources in us. Though it was hard to get away from a farm where we not only raised crops but also livestock, we always managed to take a summer vacation. We normally visited state and national parks, where we could enjoy scenery that was so much more breathtaking than the more subtle beauty of rural Illinois. I later decided to study biology in college, where my interest in nature grew even more as I took as many ecology, botany, and zoology classes as I could.
Don: I like the juxtaposition of the artistic interpretations of the plants with actual photographs in your books. Do you envision your books being used as field guides to help readers identify plants?
Jan: Yes, I see these books, especially Rachel and Sammy Visit the Prairie and Rachel and Sammy Visit the Forest – A Guide to Spring Woodland Wildflowers as junior field guides. My hope is that parents, grandparents, etc. will take children outdoors and use the books to help children learn, or at least recognize, the native plants common to the area. These books also teach readers more general plant information, which is relevant no matter where you live.
Don: Your book Rachel and Sammy Learn to Conserve offers many practical suggestions for kids themselves to implement. Turning off the water while brushing teeth, planting native rather than exotic plants, catching rainwater, and awareness of soil conservation are just a few of the things you bring to your readers’ attention. How do you feel kids benefit by learning about conservation?
Jan: When children learn about the importance of natural resources and conservation at an early age, they will hopefully carry that knowledge with them as they mature and later make wise decisions based on their early learning. Showing children how beautiful nature can be also makes them more interested in protecting and conserving it. Even if they don’t remember the name of a particular plant, they will understand the importance of native plants to an area, and hopefully appreciate them more.
Jan: Parents can encourage their children to play outdoors, whether it is running around doing physical activity or even taking their books and electronic devices outdoors. They can take their children to parks, natural areas, and nature centers to help children learn to appreciate nature. The more often children are exposed to nature, the more likely they will be to appreciate it and want to continue experiencing it. Families can practice conservation activities around the home. Recycling and teaching water and energy conservation are simple and effective hands-on ways to teach children to conserve.
Don: When I was a kid, all I knew about trees was that they were fun to climb. In Rachel and Sammy Learn About Trees you offer understandable explanations of photosynthesis, the life cycle of an oak, as well as the structural parts of trees and their functions. In your work with kids at the conservation district, what do kids most appreciate learning about trees?
Jan: Much of the educational storyline of Rachel and Sammy Learn About Trees comes from third grade Arbor Day programs I’ve done throughout the years. It amazes me how much children at this age already know about trees, whether it’s the numerous products that are derived from trees or the fact that trees produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis and pull carbon dioxide from the air to use as an ingredient to produce their own food.
Don: How did you come up with your characters Rachel and Sammy?
Jan: During my graduate school days, I conducted wildlife research on raccoons, which is how Rachel Raccoon was derived. I also encountered several other mammals, including skunks. I even thought it would be interesting to study skunks, until an overly excited skunk decided to spray me directly in the face when I was releasing it from the live trap. Sammy skunk is based on that feisty skunk.
Don: Your book Rachel and Sammy visit the Prairie is redolent of the quiet beauty and majesty of the American prairie. For those who have not spent time there, what would you most like us to understand?
Jan: When early settlers encountered the prairie for the first time, they were impressed with its vastness, though many thought it was a wasteland. Because of the moisture Illinois prairies receive during an average year, most of them contain plants that may reach several feet high at the peak of the growing season. I try to picture what this area looked like two hundred years ago, when you could see prairie for miles on end. I encourage everyone to visit a prairie at least once to observe the diversity of plants. Once you start looking closely at the individual plants, you will experience the amazing beauty of the plants themselves, not to mention all the animal life buzzing around the prairie. When you look at the prairie as a whole landscape, the beauty is on an even larger scale.
Don: As a naturalist, what ideas can you offer urban dwellers to help us stay connected with the natural world?
Jan: As more and more urban planners incorporate green space into cities, take advantage of these areas. Visit parks as much as possible within the city, and travel to natural areas when away from home. If you have the space to do so, fill your yard with native plants, trees, and a garden. If you don’t have the room, try container gardening or participate in a community garden. Try to conserve natural resources around the home.
Don: What new projects do you have on the drawing board?
Jan: I have started a mystery series with a nature storyline. I am currently working on the second book in the Nature Station mystery series for adults, called An Unnatural Selection.
For more information about author/photographer/naturalist Jannifer Powelson, see:
Author Facebook Page
Rachel and Sammy TinyTap Games
Jannifer Powelson Bibliography:
When Nature Calls – A Nature Station Mystery
Rachel and Sammy Visit the Prairie
Rachel and Sammy Visit the Forest
Rachel and Sammy Learn About Trees
Rachel and Sammy Learn to Conserve