In a 2003 press release, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute announced that it was expanding its nature writing award to include a category focused specifically on children’s literature.
As noted in the From the Archives installment from October 23, 2022, the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award was created in 1991 to support and encourage contemporary writers who were carrying on Sigurd Olson’s tradition of quality nature writing. The addition of a children’s category to the award recognized that an important subgenre of nature writing focuses on the creation of texts for children and young adults.
Candidates for the new award were authors and illustrators whose books captured the spirit of the human relationship with the natural world and promoted values that preserve or restore the land for future generations. Submissions to the award were reviewed and evaluated by a committee of readers that included teachers, librarians, bookstore owners, parents, and environmental activists. Two of the reading committee’s charter members, Jan Penn and Eileen Van Pernis, continue to be readers and supporters of the award today, and each year, a Northland College student also joins the committee as a reader.
Winners of the first award in the new children’s category were author Tony Johnston and illustrator Susan Guevara for their book Isabel’s House of Butterflies. Isabel is an eight-year-old who lives in Michoacan, Mexico, and her “house” is an oyamel tree where thousands of monarch butterflies arrive each fall to spend the winter.
Subsequent awards in the children’s category have been made each year since 2004, and in 2014, 2015, and 2016 awards were also given for the young adult books Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman, Water Runs through this Book by Nancy Bo Flood, and Hawk by Jennifer Dance. A complete list of award winners may be found on the Institute’s website.
Whenever possible, winners of the Children’s Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award have been invited to the Northland College campus to receive their awards in person and to visit with students both in Northland’s teacher education program and in regional elementary schools. In 2016 and 2017, winners of the writing award were featured at Institute-sponsored conferences focused on children’s and young adult literature. Both of the conferences were designed to celebrate the authors and provide resources to teachers, librarians, writers, and parents interested in using literature to promote literacy and science, to expand their knowledge, and to develop an appreciation of the natural world.
The newest initiative rooted in the children’s writing award is the Nature Based Reading program developed by the Institute’s youth outreach staff. This program includes videos of authors reading their own books, nature-based activities related to each book, and recommendations for how teachers might use the books with students. Currently, there are eleven featured books in the program’s collection, including The Boy Who Grew a Forest, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, A Place for Turtles, and Leave Only Ripples: A Canoe Country Sketchbook.
Financial support for the children’s category of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award is provided by faithful donors to the program, and additional support is always welcome. Winners of the award are announced each spring on or near April 4, which is Sigurd Olson’s birthday.