BOOK REVIEW: Our Great Big Backyard

I don’t generally put the Bush family and connecting kids to nature in the same thought, but former First Lady Laura Bush has advocated for bringing children outside again and protecting wild spaces in Texas, where she lives (see here). So I wasn’t too surprised when I learned that Bush and one of her daughters have authored a new kid’s book about exploring in national parks as a family (to coincide with the National Park Service’s centennial this year).

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Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager, Our Great Big Backyard (New York: HarperCollins, 2016), 40 pp. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Age: 4-8.

Publisher’s description Our Great Big Backyard follows Jane, whose plans of spending the summer playing video games with her friends are dashed when her parents announce that her family is going on a road trip to national parks around the country. Yet somewhere between the Everglades and Big Bend National Park, things begin to change. Jane starts paying attention to the magnificent sights and spends less time looking at her screen. The stunning views open up her imagination as she and her brother see everything that nature has to offer. And the more Jane discovers, the more she realizes how much there is to love about the outdoors—whether she’s in a national park across the country or right in her own backyard.

Our Great Big Backyard is a colorful introduction to national parks for young readers. The text is simple and the illustrations lively. And the different national parks shown give kids a sense of the diversity of landscapes across the United States. I have no problem with a book featuring a child using a mobile device while on a trip (since by the end of the trip she doesn’t even remember that she packed away her iPad), and her hopes of spending a summer with technology being the impetus to why she at first dislikes the idea of her family going on a big summer trip. But it strikes me the wrong way considering that this book is intended for ages 4-8. How many kids in this age range might face such a dilemma? Using a smartphone to text friends while heading out on the trip? Attached to something on an iPad while on a canoe in the Everglades? On an iPad while the rest of the family is checking out stars through a telescope in Texas? Or taking selfies to send to friends from the Grand Canyon?

Perhaps it is that my family is behind the times, but are kids in this age range really spending time on devices like this while on road trips? While I appreciate that later in the trip Jane no longer feels connected to her device, decides to use postcards to communicate with friends back home, and happily sports a Yosemite t-shirt when they return home, but I feel that her behavior shown in the book regarding technology (and that of her friends) might not necessarily mesh with the age range of the book’s intended audience. If I am wrong on this, please let me know!

The front and back inside covers of Our Great Big Backyard include a U.S. map showing the family’s road trip route and the parks they visited (with the back on including Jane’s notes about her experiences). And at the end of the book a list of national parks by state, and some links to learn more about national parks as well as one to everykidinapark.gov where 4th graders can sign up for an annual national parks (and all federal lands and waters) pass that is good for their families, too. So far we’ve used ours to visit Crater Lake National Park, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Mount Rainier National Park (twice), and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and will visit Olympic National Park in August.

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