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Continent Ecology

By Jeanne White

Author and illustrator Lynne Cherry's book The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest (Gulliver Green, 1990) focuses on South America's Amazon rainforest. Cherry visited the rainforest to create sketches and to develop her story. The inside covers of the book include a world map depicting the current and original extent of the rainforest regions. The first page explains the complex layers of the rainforest and how the kapok tree stands among the "community of animals." The book is dedicated to Chico Mendes, the murdered Brazilian union and environmental activist "who gave his life in order to preserve a part of the rainforest." My students were always captivated with the story, about a man who is ordered to chop down a kapok tree but dozes off while resting from the hard labor. Each creature, from a tiny insect to a mighty jaguar, explains the importance of the tree, including holding the soil in place during heavy rains, providing food and shelter, and producing oxygen.

Cherry includes the theme of the book toward the end when the anteater whispers to the man, "What happens tomorrow depends upon what you do today." The causes of deforestation are not provided, but students could research this as well as learn about the products in their own lives that originated in tropical rainforests. Students can write letters of support and raise funds for organizations working to prevent deforestation.


A story about the bleak, frozen continent at the South Pole is simply titled Antarctica (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990). With few sentences on each page, Helen Cowcher's illustrations help tell the story of how the introduction of humans to the continent in 1899 has taken a significant toll on the land. Native creatures, including the emperor penguin, Weddell seal, and Adelie penguin, are shown in everyday activities such as caring for their young and searching for food. Antarctica introduces the leopard seal as the natural enemy of the emperor penguin. As the story unfolds, men in helicopters arrive, driving the Adelie penguins from their nests on the shore and another enemy, the skua birds, descend on the abandoned eggs. Nearby humans, creating explosions in the ice, forever frighten the penguins from that spot. Weddell seals become anxious as the hulls of ships break through the pack ice. The uncertainty that the humans bring is the theme of this book, portrayed on the last page as the "seals and penguins cannot tell yet whether they [humans] will share or destroy their beautiful Antarctica."

Although the book does not include resources for further information about environmental threats in Antarctica or ways to prevent them, students can imagine the damaging effects of spoiled nesting and hunting grounds within the story. Children can learn the importance of Antarctica as a place to research the clean air, water, and ice to understand changes in the Earth's environment. The effects of rising global temperatures in the polar regions can be studied as well as how citizens can reduce their carbon output.

The Arctic

At the northern polar region, the European continent can be explored as the portion of the Arctic Circle, which includes Greenland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The nonfiction illustrated picture book Great Ice Bear: The Polar Bear and the Eskimo (Morrow Junior Books, 1999), by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, includes chapters that describe the life of a polar bear, legends and beliefs about the polar bear, the Inuit people who first settled in Greenland and the role polar bears play in their lives. In the introduction, Patent explains the appeal of polar bears and the difficulty in obtaining information about the relationship between humans and bears in particular.

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