Book of the Week: 'More' for kids

Here's a magpie. He's looking a little downcast, if that's not to anthropomorphic.

A mouse gives him a marble, and he flies off with it.

"Something" reads the first word of this odd and enchanting children's picture book, called "More."

Sure enough, the magpie gets more and more and more. Soon, there's so much that the branch under the magpie's nest breaks. Friendly mice begin to carry things away. Finally, the magpie flies away with the mouse, the marble, a chess rook and a piece of blue ribbon. "Yes, enough," the book declares.

Clearly, the idea is to have the book jumpstart a conversation with kids, often the greediest members of our society, about how consumption -- about how much we need, and how much is "more," and how much is too much.

It's written by I.C. Springman _ a woman who lives in a small house and wrote this for her grandsons. And it's illustrated by Brian Lies, who "battles clutter in his garage, basement and studio."   Details: Houghton Mifflin, $16.99.

This made me think about children's books and a rather disturbing recent study of award-winning children's picture books. A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emeritus J. Allen Williams Jr. found that natural environments and the creatures of nature are disappearing from between the covers.

The researchers examined nearly 8,100 pictures in nearly 300 books that were Caldecott Medal honorees between 1938 and 2008.  They looked at "whether images depicted a natural environment, such as a jungle or a forest; a built environment, such as a house, a school or an office; or something in-between, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether any animals were in the pictures -- and if so, if those creatures were wild, domesticated or took on human qualities," according to a press release.

You guessed it: More buildings and less nature. The animals that were there were humanized.

During the seven decades included in the study, more people have lived in and around built environments, so researchers said they were not surprised such images would be prominent, the press release said. But "what we find in these books ... is not a consistent proportional balance of built and natural environments, but a significant and steady increase of built environments," the authors wrote. "Natural environments have all but disappeared."

Study leader Williams commented, "I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems."

I don't remember many of my early picture books. But I do remember many later childhood favorites, from "Scuppers the Sailor Dog" to "The Jungle Book" and "Stuart Little" and "The wind in the Willows" and a multitude of Dr. Doolittle books.

The animals in all of them spoke, which is something I guess authors have to do or it might make for a staid book. But I remember the oceans that Scuppers sailed. And the jungle that Mowgli lived in.

In "More," we may have an intersection between the natural environment ... and the "built" one that the magpie created!