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Exploring environmental empathy in action with children's books.

Adults and children around the world are actively engaged in making the environment a better place. Their efforts include recycling, adopting whales and acres of the rain forest, as well as, cleaning up after oil spills and revitalizing eco-systems. This caring for the environment is what is defined in this article as "environmental empathy in action" Environmental empathy in action occurs when a person realizes that there is an environmental problem, is concerned about the problem, and then actively tries to solve the environmental problem.

In addition to defining environmental empathy in action, this article highlights both fiction and nonfiction children's books where the characters are actively trying to protect the environment. These stories, which contain characters engaged in what is termed environmental empathy in action, provides a springboard for discussing both environmental issues and ways in which people are trying to solve these issues. A reference list of children's books is included at the end of the article.


"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." (from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss,)

"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues." (from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss,)

Students raise money to "adopt" a whale, save acres of rain forest, or start a recycling program at their schools. Why are these students engaged in these types of activities? Why would they use their time, energy, and money to protect the environment? One explanation is that they care about the environment and are driven to action as they "speak for the trees?' An example of this is when, in 1987, a group of Swedish school children raised funds to purchase and protect acreage in the rain forest of Costa Rico.

Caring is a type of empathy. Empathy is viewed as an important characteristic of the socially intelligent individual (Goleman, 2006). There is not a universal agreement as to what are the characteristics of empathy. Empathy is sometimes referred to as a cognitive process (Deutsch & Madle, 1975). Feshbach (1975), however, views empathy as an affective process in which a person is able to "share an emotional response with another as well as the ability to discriminate the other's perspective and role" (p. 145). Eisenberg and Strayer (1990) view empathy as "an emotional response that stems from another's emotional state or condition and is congruent with the other's emotional state or situation" (p.5). Ekman, as reported by Goleman (2007) identifies three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Ekman's three categories provide a useful way to frame an understanding of empathy. Cognitive empathy, according to Ekman, is the ability to know how another is feeling. It can be thought of as an intellectual knowledge. We can know that people are being hurt or killed throughout the world. We have an understanding that this is occurring. Emotional empathy is emotionally experiencing the feeling of the other. An example would be feeling the loss of a parent, whose child is killed in a war. Compassionate empathy, includes cognitive and emotional empathy. However, compassionate empathy moves a person to action. The compassionate empathic person must act.

Compassionate empathic responses are usually associated between and among people. And yet, when people are environmentally concerned, they too, are being empathetic. Sobel (1996) believes that children's empathy with the natural world is critical. When students have a cognitive empathic understanding of environmental issues and are emotionally connected to the environment, they are driven to want to make changes. This compassionate empathic response of wanting to protect the environment will be referred to as "environmental empathy in action."

Environmental empathy in action occurs when people help save animals covered in oil from an oil spill. It occurs when people try to save ancient forests from being cut down, or riding their bicycles as a way to limit greenhouse gases.. In short, environmental empathy in action is what occurs when people actively work to protect or improve the environment.

The purpose of this article is to highlight books where the main characters are engaged in protecting or saving the environment, that is, environmental empathy in action. The article will also highlight books, which can be used as reference sources as students are driven to make environmental changes. The suggested books listed here are excellent resources for thoughtful discussions. The books are organized around two categories: fiction and nonfiction.


Fiction can provide a rich source for discussions. The following books, which all have elements of environmental empathy in action, cover a wide range of genres, i.e. fantasy, realistic fiction, mysteries, and historical fiction.

The Lorax (Seuss, 1971) who "speaks for the trees" is a powerful example of environmental empathy in action. The Lorax is a fanciful character trying to protect an idyllic environment from industrialized destruction. The story ends with a challenge to us all to make a difference. Another fanciful story is Chris Saves Mother Earth (Targett, 2010). In this story, Chris travels on the back of his seagull friend Sammy and enlists the aid of animals around the world to help protect Mother Earth. But, time is running out and Chris must hurry before it is too late.

More realistic characters trying to protect the environment are found in three books by Carl Hiaasen. In Hoot (Hiaasen, 2002), the habitat of burrowing owls is being protected by an unlikely group of children. While in Flush (Hiaasen, 2005) focuses on the ethical dilemmas of sinking a boat that is being used to pollute waterways. Finally, in Scat (Hiaasen, 2009) we find both children and adults trying to help endangered panthers in Florida. Hiaasen's quirky characters in all three books show that anyone can be an advocate for nature.

Washing the Willow Tree Loon (Martin, 1995) is another book with diverse characters making a difference. In this book, a group of bird lovers from various occupations all help a loon that is covered in oil from an oil spill in Turtle Bay. Even Judy Moody, in Judy Moody Saves the World (McDonald, 2002) joins in, after many false starts, to try to make the world a better place. This book will resonate with children who want to improve the environment, but do not always know what they can do.

Mysteries can also show how environmental empathy in action can be achieved. In The Wheel on the School (Dejong, 1954), Lina, a young girl, asks why her Dutch town has no storks. After finding out what is causing the lack of storks, Lina and the townsfolk make changes to bring the storks back. Jean Craighead George has a series of eco-mysteries, which explore dangers to the environment. In each story, groups of children from different habitats investigate their local environmental problems. The stories present real science dilemmas and a scientific approach to understanding the complex issues. In The Firebug Connection (George, 1993) a 12-year-old investigates what is causing the death of European firebugs. While in Who Really Killed Cock Robin (George, 1971) Tony works to solve the mystery of why the town's most famous robin is dead.

In The Missing 'Gator of Gumbo Limbo (George, 1993), Lisa, who lives in southern Florida, searches for an alligator scheduled for extermination. In The Case of the Missing Cutthroats (George 1996) children are trying to find out what has happened to all of the cutthroats that once were so numerous. And, Tepi, in One Day in the Tropical Rain Forest (George, 1990), must find a rare butterfly to help save his rain forest from the bulldozers.

While environmental empathy in action can be exhibited through action, as shown, for example, through the George eco-mysteries, it can also be exhibited by inaction. In The Empty Lot (Fife, 1991), Harry discovers that the city lot he had planned to sell for development is actually full of all sorts of life. He leaves it full of its inhabitants and does not sell. A change of action also occurs in The Great Kapok Tree (Cherry, 1990). In the story, a tree cutter, prior to cutting down a huge tree in the rainforest learns, while napping, of all of the life that relies on the tree. When he awakens from the nap, he walks away, leaving the tree intact.

Dreaming is another way to explore environmental empathy in action. In Just a Dream (van Allsburg, 1990) Walter, a boy who thinks recycling is a waste of time, dreams about an environmentally damaged world; the result of humanity's disregard for the environment. Once he wakes from the dream, Walter changes his environmental behave in the hopes that his nightmarish dream does not come true. In Hey! Get Off Our Train (Burningham, 1989), a boy dreams of saving endangered animals as he rides a train.

The last book in this section is a type of historical fiction. The book The Forever Forest: Kids Save a Tropical Treasure (Pratt-Serafini, 2008) blends a fictionalized story, of a boy from Sweden who visits a Costa Rican rainforest, with the true story of Swedish second grade students who helped start El Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (the BEN), a project aimed at protecting acreage in the rain forest.


Nonfiction can provide real-life examples of ways in which people are displaying environmental empathy in action. Books that provide stories about real people making a difference can be powerful tools for discussions. A special category of nonfiction is the How-To book. As students decide to engage in environmental empathy in action, they will want to explore specific examples for making a difference in the environment.

Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet (Rohmer, 2009) provides twelve stories of people from across North America who have worked to improve the environment. While Acting for Nature: What Young People Around the World Have Done to Protect the Environment (Collard, 1999) tells the true stories of children from around the world working to protect animals and their habitats. A similar book, which focuses on adults and young people fighting to save wild birds, is Saving Birds: Heroes Around the Worm (Salmansohn, 2005).

The Story of Rachel Carson and the Environmental Movement (Foster, 1990) describes the life of Rachel Carson and the impact her writings have had on helping people become aware of environmental concerns

50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth (Earthworks Group, 1999), Going Green: A Kid's Handbook to Saving the Planet (Elkington, 1990), and 365 Ways to Live Green for Kids: Saving the Environment at Home, School, or at Play--Every Day (Amsei, 2009) all provide easy to implement ways to make an environmental difference through recycling, gardening, and habitat protection.

In Where Once There was a Wood (Fleming, 1996), Fleming shows how animals can be displaced by human development. She provides examples of how schools and communities can provide spaces for wildlife.


Using children's literature is a useful tool to explore empathy (Cress & Holm, 2000) and environmental empathy in action specifically. Fiction and nonfiction books written with environmental themes can provide students with an understanding of various environmental issues as well as to provide them with topics for discussion. Discussing these books is critical, and provides students an opportunity to "examine issues from multiple perspectives" (Meyer, 2002, p. 280) which is crucial for environmental empathy in action to take place.

The books listed in this article provide a springboard for discussing environmental empathy in action. As these books are discussed, students explore the critical attributes of the stories. Tied in to Ekman's three types of empathy, students would identify and discuss: 1) the environmental problem (cognitive empathy) 2) why a character would be upset by the environmental problem (emotional empathy) and, 3) how the character tries to solve the environmental problem (compassionate empathy) i.e. environmental empathy in action.

Environmental empathy in action is a concept that students can understand. Once they realize environmental problems are occurring all around them all the time.... they will want to act.


Bunting, T.E. & L.R. Cousins (1985). Environmental Dispositions among School-Age Children: A preliminary investigation. Environment and Behavior 17(6),725-768.

Cress, S. & Holm, D.T. (2000). Developing empathy through children's literature. Education, 120(3), 593-596.

Deutsch, F. & Madle, R.A. (1975). Empathy: Historic and current conceptualizations, measurement, and a cognitive theoretical perspective. Human Development, 18(4), 267-287.

Eisenberg, N., & Strayer, J. (1990). Critical Issues in the study of empathy. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its development (pp. 3-16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Feshbach, N.D. (1975). Empathy in children: Some theoretical and empirical considerations. The Counseling Psychologist, 5(2), 25-30.

Harvey, M. (1989) The Relationship between Children's Experiences with Vegetation on School grounds. Journal of Environmental Education, 21(2), 9-18.

Hoffman, M.L. (1984). Interaction of affect and cognition in empathy. In C. Izard, J. Kagan & R. Zasonc (Eds.), Emotions, cognition, and behavior (pp. 103-131). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam Dell: New York.

Goleman, D. (2007). Three Kinds of Empathy: cognitive, emotional, compassionate. Retrieved at hree-kinds-of-empathy-cognitive-emotionalcompassionate/

Meyer, J. M. (2002). Accuracy and bias in children's environmental literature: A look at Lynne Cherry's books. The Social Studies, 93(6), 277-281.

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart of Nature Education. Great Barfington, MA: The Orion Society.

Children's Book References

Amsei, S. (2009). 365 Ways to Live Green for Kids: Saving the Environment at Home, School, or at Play--Every Day. New York: Adams Media.

Burningham, J. (1989). Hey! Get Off the Train. New York: Crown Publishing.

Cherry, L. (1990) The Great Kapok Tree. New York: Harcourt Children's Books.

Collard, S (1999). Acting for Nature: What Young People Around the Worm Have Done to Protect the Environment. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.

Dejong, M. (1954). The Wheel on the School. New York: Harper.

Earthworks Group, (1999), 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. New York: Turtleback Books.

Elkington, J. (1990). Going Green: A Kid's Handbook to Saving the Planet. New York: Viking Press.

Fleming, D.(1996) Where once there was a wood. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Foster, L. M. (1990). The Story of Rachel Carson and the Environmental Movement. Chicago: Children's Press.

George, J. C. (1990). One Day in the Tropical Rainforest. New York: T.Y. Crowell.

George, J. C. (1996). The case of the Missing Cutthroats. New York: Harper Collins.

George, J. C. (1993). The Firebug Connection. New York: Harper Collins.

George, J. C. (1993). The Missing 'Gator of Gumbo Limbo. New York: Harper Collins.

George, J.C. (1971). Who Really Killed Cock Robin? New York: E.P. Dutton.

Haissen, C. (2005). Flush. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Haissen, C. (2002). Hoot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Haissen, C. (2009). Scat. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Martin, J. B.(1995) Washing the Willow Tree Loon. New York: Simon & Schuster.

McDonald, M (2002). Judy Moody Saves the WorM. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Pratt-Serafini, K.J. (2008).The Forever Forest: Kids Save a Tropical Treasure. New York: Dawn Publishers.

Rohmer, H. (2009). Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Salmansohn, P. (2005). Saving Birds: Heroes Around the World. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House.

Seuss, D. (1971). The Lorax. New York: Random House.

Targett, M. (2010). Chris Saves Mother Earth. Queensland: Joshua Books.

Van Allsburg, C. (1990). Just A Dream. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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Author:Holm, Daniel
Publication:Reading Improvement
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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