Gwinna A Girl Who is Made of the Earth

As a girl, I had always felt a strong infinity towards nature and the outdoors.  My parents had acres of wild woods that bordered our manicured backyard.  My girlfriends and I would run straight from the bus stop to the iron wrought gates that led to the “back-forty,” crawling through the twisted branches to our secret places.  Only the impending darkness and the calls of our mothers for dinner would lure us out of the special places we had made deep in the woods. 

Barbara Helen Berger

Sometimes when my girlfriends were off with their families I would sneak into the woods by myself, grasping under my arm a story that was as a part of me as my own heart.  Gwinna, by Barbara Helen Berger, is a story about a girl who is made of the Earth. 

Gwinna is a dramatic fairy tale about a lonely couple who desperately want a child but cannot conceive.  They go to Mother Owl in the forest to ask for guidance and she grants them a baby girl but with a catch—they must return her on her 12th birthday.  As you can guess, Gwinna’s parents refuse to return her to Mother Owl and the story unfolds into a twisting tale of self-discovery and respect of nature. 

Gwinna has a special connection to all living things, for she is a being of the forest.  I would spend endless hours pretending to be Gwinna, imagining I had to power to draw all the creatures of the forest to my lap.  Her respect and connection to nature gives her an unique glow, which can be seen from the Berger’s beautiful illustrations.  I was captivated by Gwinna—I even wrote a letter to Ms. Berger to ask how she thought of Gwinna, where she came from?  Even more cherished than my copy of Gwinna was the letter I received back from the author, which I read aloud to my third grade class and my mother had framed to hang above my bed.  Ms. Berger explained that Gwinna came to her unexpectedly and her story was as organic as the forest around me—she had little control over the tale of Gwinna, it flowed from her fingers like water from a stream.  This made Gwinna even more real to me and I resolved to live as Gwinna, bond to nature with undying respect and love. 

I often think of Gwinna when I’m alone in nature, soaking up the solitude and peacefulness of mother earth.  Although I wasn’t born from Mother Owl like Gwinna, I feel the same tie to nature and I’ve stayed true to that instinct.  I often wonder about Ms. Berger, as many of her books have gone out of print, including Gwinna.  I have unending appreciation for the story and Ms. Berger because it had immense impact on my childhood, urging me to explore the wildness of nature and respect its power.   I truly believe that had I not read Gwinna, I might not have chosen the same path in life.  This is a true example of the power of a book to influence the heart and mind. 

Connecting Children to Nature Through American Literature: 1890 - Today Exhibit web site

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Old Mother West Wind Blew Me Away - by Peggy Christian

When I was five years old my parents and I spent the summer in a tent at a remote Colorado gold mine.  Over the course of the summer my father read me all of Thorton Burgess's books, starting with Old Mother West Wind and then on to Buster Bear, Reddy Fox, Jimmy Skunk, etc.  These were more than good bedtime reads to my father, they had been his childhood favorites.  Born in 1911, the same year Old Mother West Wind was written, my father eagerly awaited the publication of the next in the series.  He wanted to share with me the deep connection to the natural world these books had given him. 

Going back to the books fifty years later, having read them to my boys and then stored them in the attic for future grandchildren, I was surprised to see how well they stand up.  Yes, the language is dated, but they have a lovely oral storytelling quality that I've missed in some modern children's stories.  And I know the anthropomorphism is very out of date—shunned by all enlightened writers of children's books today.  Still, I would argue that instead of making children see animals as human, it engages their imaginations, encouraging them to relate to animals in a deeper way than most non-fiction books, which make us see the natural world as something to be studied and protected, but not something we are a part of.

Being an only child, there were no other kids to play with at our camp, but I never felt lonely because Chatterer the Red Squirrel greeted me (or scolded me—I was never sure), every morning.  And Paddy the Beaver lived just down the creek in the pond he'd built.  Every time I ventured near, he would slap his tail and scare me to death.

Burgess was a naturalist and conservationist and he based his animal's characteristics on his own close observations of their behavior.  This encouraged me to watch as well.  After hearing the story of Sammy Jay, I sat out by the campfire observing the gray jays as they chattered in the trees and snooped around camp for any loose crumbs.

I also remember how Burgess named the places in the landscape of his stories—The Great Woods,
The Green Meadow, The Smiling Pool and the The Laughing Brook.  I too named the places where I played-- the creek with the wild watercress, Sandwich Creek, or the willow bushes by the pond Willow Cottage after I cut away a secret little den inside the tangle of branches.  My mother helped me draw a map and the woods felt like home.

Burgess encouraged his readers to engage imaginatively in the natural world.  In fact, he said that the imagination is “the birthright of every child.”  And I hope to do the same in the stories I write for children.


Do you remember any special relationships you had with wild animals as a child?

Did you have any special places in nature?

Check out The Thorton Burgess Society
Owl Moon is based on an activity that could be a true story, but it is fictional because the characters are created by the author. 

If you are excited about owls and want to learn a little more about their natural history, I received a non-fiction book for Christmas that I recommend.  Some have mentioned that it is a children’s book, but I believe it is geared more for adults. The format looks much like a picture book and has illustrations that would appeal to a child.  This format may have misled some to think it is a children’s book.  

The book Twelve Owls, by Laura Erickson, has a Minnesota slant since the author lives there, but she works for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and has 35 years of bird experience and refers to other states often in the text. 

She has also published a book called Sharing the Wonders of Birds With Kids.  Both these books are published by the University of Minnesota Press.

I also recommend a children’s bird book series by Adele Porter, published by Adventure Publications. My copy, of course, is Wild About Minnesota Birds:  A Youth’s Guide to the Birds of Minnesota.  This guide contains beautiful photos and intriguing text.  It is more than just a typical field guide.  Others in the series are about Michigan, Wisconsin and Northeastern birds.

Birds are often common in every habitat no matter where you look and are the perfect subject to use to get kids excited about nature and caring about the environment.  This is why I’m happy to pass along some good reads to spark interest in birds and the outdoors.


Do you have any favorite bird books?  My first field guide was North American Birds Golden Guide. 

What was your very first bird book?

New! Morgan Academy Discussion Blog on connecting children to nature through literature.

Don't Forget to Check Out America's Wild Read !

OWL MOON: “Owling”- Not Just a Childhood Experience – Perspective by Deanne Endrizzi

I didn’t have parents that were much into nature, so my interest was sparked through my own investigations.  It would have been awesome to have a parent, relative or friend like Pa in the book Owl Moon that would take me out to look for owls at night.

My first experience with “owling” was in my late high school and young adult years.  One of my first dates with my husband was owling on Valentine’s night.  Because of this evening, owling holds a special place in my heart and that is why I accepted the invitation to moderate.

Owl Moon, the 1988 Caldecott winner, is considered a “quiet” book and unless you are an established author, it is hard to get these types of books published.  The vivid descriptions of the night hike coupled with John Schoenherr artwork really make the story come alive.  The hair stands up on the back of my neck having experienced this activity myself.
The description of the train whistle and the dogs barking reminds me of the cold, snowy nights at my great grandma’s house back in the 70s.  It is interesting how some stories bring back childhood memories.
I wonder if this story is based on the author's personal experience.  It seems she must have had some familiarity of hiking at night in the winter to weave together such a realistic tale.

Owl Moon’s author, Jane Yolen, is a prolific writer with over 300 books published and she started writing in 1963.  She’s not what you would call a nature writer, but she has several other nature-related books of poetry with photos by Stan Stemple.  The most recent are:  An Egret’s Day (2009), A Mirror to Nature (2009) and Fine Feathered Friends (2004).
Have you ever been owling? If you found owls on a night hike, what species did you see/hear?  What kind of memories does this book stir up for you?

Owl photgraphed by Deanne

New! Morgan Academy Discussion Blog on connecting children to nature through literature.

Don't Forget to Check Out America's Wild Read !