Save the Animals! Books About Endangered Species & Conservation Efforts

Five nonfiction titles for tweens and teens that go beyond the basics, offering new perspectives and critical takes on protecting vulnerable species and habitats.

Books about cute, furry animals are a perennial favorite in libraries. In my rural service area, lots of kids grow up hunting and fishing but are no less interested in animals and their environs than more urban dwellers. As kids grow into their teen years, it’s a good time to take that love and start translating it into some serious thinking about ecology, science, and how humans interact with the earth and wildlife around them. The following titles approach “saving the animals” in a different fashion, inspiring readers to think globally, act locally, and reflect on their place in the ecosystem and how they can affect it, both positively and negatively.

The “Scientists in the Field” series from HMH has generally done a great job in presenting scientific investigation, often related to animals, around the world while still including the concerns and viewpoints of local inhabitants. This is shown best in a recent title, Amazon Adventure by Sy Montgomery. The narrative centers around aquarist Scott Dowd and the relationship his institution has formed with an initiative called “Project Piaba.” Dowd explains that when people thought they were saving the rainforest by ceasing trade in native fish and purchasing locally farmed fish for their aquariums, these well-meaning aquarists and hobbyists actually contributed to destruction of the rainforest by removing the livelihood of locals, thus opening the area for development and deforestation. Through “Project Piaba,” Dowd and other scientists help local villagers revive and sustain their economy by improving the ways they collect and sell indigenous fish species. Through these educational and economic efforts, the residents can help save the rainforest as well as maintain their own vitally important natural resources.

Another title that encourages readers to think beyond their own feelings and consider a subject from a wider viewpoint is Patricia Newman’s Zoo Scientists to the Rescue. It’s difficult for many animal lovers to think of beloved creatures in zoos, feeling that they should be free to roam and remain in their natural habitat. Newman takes a thoughtful look at the work of three scientists who work with zoos to save endangered species. After spending several years in the field working with orangutans, scientists Meredith Bastian joined the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. For both personal and professional reasons, she was no longer able to be effective in the field and now helps save orangutans through educational programs. She helps show people how technology can help scientists study animals in the wild in safer, less invasive ways. Jeff Baughman works with the endangered black-footed ferret at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and reflects on the many different people, institutions, and groups it takes to maintain a captive breeding population of this rare species, hopefully ensuring its survival in the future. Finally, Dr. Rachel Santymire of the Lincoln Park Zoo works with critically endangered black rhinos, taking her research from the field in South Africa back to the zoo in Chicago. There she uses the data (and feces) she collects to send information back to the wildlife preserve that will possibly help the rhinos survive. Newman finishes these stories with a history of zoos and how their mission has changed over time from entertainment to education and conservation.

But where does this all this lead? Kids who stuck panda stickers on their backpacks and learned about the rainforest in second grade are now going into high school and wondering if any of these animals will exist when they graduate in a few years. Nancy Castaldo’s hope-filled Back from the Brink addresses successful stories of conservation. Whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison have all been brought back from near extinction, reintroduced to their native habitat when possible, and now have a future where previously none seemed possible. Castaldo thoughtfully considers the various viewpoints involved from the controversial breeding program to save California condors, which still remain endangered and may never fly freely again, to the resurgence of American alligators who now face new threats from rising sea levels and invasive species. Castaldo’s work will give readers hope that they can make a difference while not shying away from the rough road ahead for many species.

But what if there’s no way to return to “the way things were?” This is the tough question that Jane Drake and Ann Love consider in Rewilding, which addresses a number of conservation efforts, their effects, and raises many questions about wild animals and humans. From successful efforts like the reintroduction of trumpeter swans and the return of wolves in Yellowstone and rebalancing the ecosystem to a more healthy level to more challenging issues like the ongoing efforts to save panda bears and the lack of habitat for condors, the authors cover a wide range of topics relating to endangered animals in this slim volume. This book raises questions about wildlife in urban areas, efforts to return developed spaces to wild areas, and the possibility that some species will never again exist outside of zoos or labs. Readers will have much to consider in these pages as they go beyond a simple “save the animals” mindset to consider a broader view of changing ecosystems and habitat and how humans and wildlife can coexist.

Finally, for readers who are ready to have their thought processes challenged and their critical thinking skills put to work, I would pull off the shelf an older, but still relevant, title. In 2014, Paul Fleischman produced a book that was a unique blend of call to action, assessment of news sources, and a broad overview of environmental concerns. Eyes Wide Open can in some ways seem outdated and even depressing, four years later, when the political and environmental landscape has so drastically changed and the effects of climate change are becoming ever more visible. However, the basic premise of the book, that readers should consider their biases, research what they see in the news, and reflect on their own place in the current climate, both political and environmental, is still quite timely. This is a dense title, including both personal anecdotes, historical reflections, contemporary (to the time) headlines, and a wealth of resources. Older tweens and teen readers will find much food for thought here as they consider how they will impact both their own communities and the global community in their adulthood. Teachers interested in using this book as a basis for instruction and research will be pleased to know that the website is still updated and the resource list reasonably current.

Tweens and teens continue to be concerned about the environment and the world they may potentially raise their own children in. Will the animals they learned about as children still exist? Are their homes threatened by climate change? How will conservation efforts affect their families and livelihoods? These books will help them think critically not only about current news but about their own choices for the future, offering hope while still looking realistically at the challenges that lie ahead.

Works Cited

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World's Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery, photos by Keith Ellenbogen. 2017. HMH. ISBN 9780544352995.

Zoo Scientists to the Rescue by Patricia Newman, photos by Annie Crawley. 2017. Lerner. ISBN 9781512415711.

Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction by Nancy Castaldo. 2018. HMH. ISBN 9780544953437.

Rewilding: Giving Nature a Second Chance by Jane Drake and Ann Love. 2017. Annick. ISBN 9781554519620.

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman. 2014. Candlewick. ISBN 9780763671020.


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