What is a Naturalist?
“We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” (Charlotte Mason)
A simple way to think of a naturalist is a person who studies plants, animals, and fungi in their natural environment. A professional naturalist traditionally will use more observational science than experimental methods, but that’s not a hard line. Many of the naturalists in this list used experiments to learn more about a field of interest: Beatrix Potter experimented with fungi spores and Maria Merian experimented with caterpillar larvae and host plants.
All of these books evoke images of a childhood spent immersed in nature. In some cases the children grow up to be adults in their specific childhood-field-of-interest: John James Audubon and birds, Jean Henri-Fabre and insects. In other cases there is not such a direct line to an adult career: Ansel Adams became a photographer, Beatrix Potter an author.
I will say that a couple of these books play up the “_________ was not your average child” mantra. The suggestion is that if a young child prefers to study insects or collect rocks than sit in a school desk all day or play video games then they are a bit abnormal. I find that the opposite is actually true–I think children have a natural-born inclination to absorb and enjoy the natural world to its fullest and to their hearts’ content.
“If children are to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, nature needs to be integral to their everyday lives, from place-based learning at school to unstructured, unsupervised, even risk-prone play around home. Nature isn’t just a bunch of far-off plants, animals, and landscapes to learn about and visit once or twice a year. It’s an environment to be immersed in daily, especially during our childhood years.” (Scott D. Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child)
Favorite Naturalist Picture Book Biographies
|Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story
Anna Botsford Comstock is the author of Handbook of Nature Study. This picture book follows her life from childhood on, depicting a young girl entranced with the natural world who grows to be a woman widely acknowledged to be a nature expert and pioneer in the field of nature education. One of her main contributions was to encourage children’s interest in the natural world by conducting science and nature studies outdoors. She believed children need to experience nature for themselves, not just through books in a classroom.
|Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian
With a net in her hand, young Maria sets out to study insects closely and learn more about them. Since she lived in a time when people thought insects were “beasts of the devil,” Maria Merian is considered to be one of the first naturalists who studied insects through direct observation. She contributed much to the field of etymology. I appreciate that the illustrations in this book evoke the style of Maria Merian herself, who used watercolors, engravings, and etchings. The text in this book is rich, but a bit simpler than some of the others on this book list and therefore preschooler-friendly. In some ways this book is more of a playful and interesting story and less of a true biography.
Another option: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science — this book is a much longer and thorough biography of Maria Merian’s life, with excellent illustrations and even includes images of Maria Merian’s artwork.
|Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt
One of my favorite wildflower nature study books. I personally loved reading this the first time to my kids because I got to learn more about Lady Bird Johnson. I had no idea she had such a connection to wildflowers. “To Lady Bird, the act of planting flowers helped people become better caretakers.” I love the idea of connecting to nature through gardening, not just through wild mountain adventures like John Muir. Later in life Lady Bird helped establish the National Wildflower Research Center, a fitting legacy for a girl and woman that love wildflowers so much and saw the need to protect them for the future.
Note: This book does address the assassination of JFK. It is handled gently but it might bring up some questions for younger readers.
|Small Wonders: Jean Henri-Fabre and His World of Insects by Matthew Clark Smith
I absolutely love this biography because it is told in such an engaging and thrilling way — not just a simple run-through year-by-year of Jean Henri-Fabre’s life. We begin with the President of France visiting an old recluse man in a small town — but why would he visit such a man, and who is this person? We later learn it is Jean Henri-Fabre and the President has arrived to give him an award for his contributions to etymology. The early depictions of the young boy’s discoveries in nature are so inspiring and the imaginative settings are inviting–you literally just want to jump into the dreamy landscape. I think this book does an excellent job of depicting exactly what a naturalist is—not only seeing the infinite beauty in the tiniest of wonders, but taking time to observe, draw pictures, and record notes. And, lastly, to share those discoveries with others … which is worthy of reward.
|Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes
This biography covers the adventurous years Darwin spent traveling on the HMS Beagle and on land throughout South America (not just the Galápagos Islands). This story celebrates the virtue of exploration and wonder—through the eyes of a young man we celebrate the observation of the tiniest of creatures, the mystery of dug-up bones, and the awe of active volcanoes. Do you know what it feels like to see a new creature or plant for this first time? This book evokes those emotions quite well. This book also comes with fun maps to explore and spark imagination as well as inviting illustrations, especially of the HMS Beagle. The adventure narrative is riveting and fun!
Note: Darwin’s religious views have been widely debated and discussed. This picture books omits any mention of that tension.
|The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies
Audubon felt that studying birds in nature, in their natural habitat was preferable to book-learning. He would carry with him notebooks and pencils to illustrate birds that he actually observed. Beyond the fact that he is widely recognized as one of the best bird painters, he also helped pioneer the idea of bird banding to track migration. One thing I appreciate in this book is the relationship John James has with his father, who also loved birds and is an encouragement to the young boy. Many of the other stories in this list are told of an individual in isolation from others. It’s nice to highlight a positive family influence on inspiring a love of the natural world.
Note: This book is also on my list of Favorite Bird Books for Children
|When Sue Found Sue: Sue Hendrickson Discovers Her T. Rex by Toni Buzzeo
You might be surprised that I’m including a fossil collector in my list of naturalists. The reason for this is that Sue Hendrickson’s childhood was that of a naturalist: she spent time in nature and had a particular fondness for finding and collecting nature treasures. The illustrations in the book show little Sue how hunting with a net or magnifying glass for any new discovery. This book ultimately inspires children to take things a little slower and spend the time to take a closer look at the natural world around them. Who know what they will find!
|Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliott
“‘Ansel was antsy. He never walked–he ran.’ … ‘Why don’t you go outside?” suggested his father.” YES! Send them outside. Ansel Adams spent his childhood exploring Northern California and loving every minute of exploration and fresh air. When he was 14 he took a trip to the Yosemite Valley, falls in love (who wouldn’t?), and his parents gift him with a camera. The rest is history, of course.
|The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
A little girl believes tress are her friends. Of course they are when you live in Northern California!! This is the enthralling story of Kate Sessions, whose passion for trees as a child stays with her into adulthood, where she finds herself bringing trees from around to the world to a little desert town known as San Diego. No one at that time could imagine San Diego as a lush and leafy city! Kate Sessions was also instrumental in creating Balboa Park to be what it is today: full of trees. The text and illustrations of this book are reminiscent of Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Utterly charming.
|Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement by Stephanie Roth Sisson
From a young age, Rachel was interested in spending time in nature and had a near-constant desire to learn and know more about all her observations. Then later, something shifts into her consciousness, and she takes notice and action. The images used in this book to depict the “going silent” natural world are quite gentle and I think appropriate for younger children. The book mainly focuses on Rachel’s time spent in nature, her curiosity and love for it. This is just my opinion, but I do not think we need to burden small children with all the ills of environmental degradation. I believe we should worry more about getting them out into nature and inviting them to love it. If they love it, of course they will want to preserve, honor, and protect it.
I think this other biography of Rachel Carson deals with the negative effects of DDT on the environment more directly (both in text and imagery), and may be more appropriate to read to older elementary children — Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor.
|Beatrix Potter by Alexandra Wallner
There is no doubt that Beatrix Potter was a young naturalist. She spent much of her time illustrating her own pets, which later served as inspirations for her stories. What many do not know about Beatrix Potter is how her interest in drawing and painting mushrooms in particular also led to her interest in mycology. She even conducted her own observations experiments on spore germination, which were ignored at the time due to a woman’s place in society. Her love for nature continued throughout her life even after she stopped writing her stories.
Another fantastic Beatrix Potter book:
|The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist by Margarita Engle
Louis Fuertes was an ornithologist inspired by Audubon to paint his own artwork based on birds. The illustrations in this book are stunning, realistic, and engaging. The text is all written in prose. It’s a beautiful book that pays a nice tribute. I will say that it’s important to see that the illustrations venture more into a dreamy depiction and steer away from the style of Fuertes himself. The book The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon, for example, does a nice job with illustrations matching the style and era of Audubon.
Note: This book is also on my list of Favorite Bird Books for Children
|Karl, Get Out of the Garden!: Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything by Anita Sanchez
I’ll be honest: I was not expecting to love this book when I got it from the library, but it’s so enthralling! I love the storytelling here and there is an appropriate amount of charm and humor involved in the creation of the scientific classification system: the naming of EVERYTHING! The story inspires an appreciation of Linnaeus for his incredible lifelong work. I love the page towards the end that shows people who speak a wide variety of languages using the exact same Latin word for carrot. What an accomplishment for one person!
|Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez
This book is an easy hit for reptile-loving children! I had never heard of Joan Proctor before getting this book and we are quite amazed at her life’s work–especially her care for Komodo dragons at the London Zoo. The illustrations are fun and the story is an engaging read even for preschoolers — it does not read so fact-based as some of the other books on this list.
- Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt
- The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life With Chimps by Jeanette Winter
- Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation by Peggy Thomas
- The Slipper’s Keeper by Ian Wallace
- Seeds of Change: Wangari’s Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson
- Rare Treasures: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown
- Stone Girl, Bone Girl by Laurence Anholt
- Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins
- In the Garden With Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby
- A Weed is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver by Aliki
- David Attenborough (Little People, Big Dreams) by Isabel Sanchez Vegara
- Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit by Linda Marshall
- I did not include books about Ocean Nature Explorers because there is so many! Books like Shark Lady, Manfish, Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, or Life in the Ocean are a few options here.
- I also did not include Space Explorers which is a different kind of scientist than a Naturalist, in my mind. I do think these types of books have similar stories: children interested in the natural world become adults with a passion for a nature-based field. Books like Look Up!, Caroline’s Comets, The Girl Who Named Pluto, What Miss Mitchell Saw, and Mae Among the Stars are options here.