"We want to introduce holistic living in subtle and fun ways to children who typically don't get exposure to different aspects of holistic living, such as vegetarianism, yoga, just being out in nature," says Robyn Ringgold, president of Solar Publishing.
Ringgold and her partner, Zaccai Free, are both African American. Truth be told, it's rare to find African Americans in book publishing - and, as a green company, Solar Publishing is involved in a movement that tends to be very white.
For Ringgold, that's neither here nor there - it's all about the books and their messages.
"Ultimately, we want to reach out to all children, and we use diverse characters to teach subtle lessons and to help children feel more connected to nature. That's really the vision that we have for our company - to produce products to help children feel more connected to nature, which helps them feel more connected to humanity."
Ringgold and Free sit before a group of children (part of a Baltimore Summer Literacy Program Reading Wrap Up), and Free begins by announcing that the kids are going to participate in a sing-along. He quickly teaches the words to the group, and at one part of the song Free calls on a child and that child inserts the name of something in nature that he or she would like to be: "I am a spider," "I am the sky," "I am a flower," etc. It sounds simple enough until you look at the children's faces and realize they are struggling to come up with things to be. Their little brows furrow as they try to think of natural things.
The first child called on says, "I am a tree." So does the second, and the third. The fourth one does, too. Free encourages them to think about "the things that are out in the world" as they continue to sing. He calls on the next child who shyly and almost fearfully asks, "a bird?"
"Yes," Free says, encouraging her. The song continues, and when the next child is called on, there is a long moment of hesitation. "What do you want to be?" Free asks. The young boy seems to be gathering up his determination. "A...dragonfly," he finally asserts. He quickly looks around to see how his peers respond. They clap, and Free smiles broadly. And as the song continues and other kids are called on, butterflies, ducks, rabbits and clouds join the trees.
Ringgold penned My Mom Hugs Trees, a story of an eco-friendly mother who hugs trees, talks to plants, and is kind to all animals - even bugs, much to her daughter's disgust initially - and Free wrote Mbutu's Mangos, the story of a boy from Belize who wants to save his favorite fruits from rotting on the ground after they fall.
The story was inspired by a period he spent living in the jungle in "a shelter with no walls, just a roof." Both books are influenced by the authors' experiences - both attended Florida A&M University, from which Ringgold graduated with a degree in journalism and Free received his degree in history and political science, and between the two of them they have traveled throughout Africa, South America and India.
With bright, energetic illustrations by Vidya Vasudevan, the two books offer fun reads that are subtly infused with poetry and prose. Additionally, the books gently present green concepts to children who may not be familiar with environmentalism, but the entertainment value of the stories themselves is never eclipsed.
Ringgold started Solar Publishing in January 2006, after working as an international trade magazine art director for small publishers for 10 years. During that time her environmentalist outlook evolved. "I was always into holistic living, but then the green movement took off, and I think it found us while we were finding it," she says. "In the beginning we weren't necessarily saying, 'Well, we're gonna go green,' but we've gotten a lot more into that, and it's become more of the direction than when we started out. The whole green movement has really taken off. There are just so many more options in terms of products than there were even when we got started. There is even a green press initiative that some publishers are getting into. It's growing so much, and we've been growing along with it. We've really gotten into it and embraced it."
Gotten into it they have: Solar prints on post-consumer recycled paper, and through a partnership with Trees for the Future, the company plants a tree for every book it sells. But is this a successful business model?
"I know we're successful because of the feedback," Ringgold says. "I hear from so many parents about how much they enjoy books. I hear from parents that they can't find books with these types of themes and diversity. If you measured it in dollars, for being in our first year, we've been pretty successful. We've grown, gotten a lot better, and we've learned even more about the publishing industry."
After the singing, Ringgold and Free read their books to the group and offer the children an autographed copy of a book of their choice. They talk to each child, asking about their aspirations and hobbies. "I always find some aspiring writers in the crowd," Ringgold says with a smile. "And I always encourage them."
"Children's books affect the whole family," Free says. "The parents buy the book for the child and end up reading it to the child, but they're reading it, too. Everybody gets an experience. In some families the older child reads to the younger child, so they're experiencing it together. With children's books, more so than any other kinds of books, the whole family, even the grandparents, gets involved in the process. They all get to learn something from what you write. You touch all of them."
Ringgold agrees. "To this day I can remember every children's book that I read when I was little," she says. "Most adults can. They have an impact on you. And that's why they are so important."
A version of this story first appeared in Baltimore City Paper. For more information on Solar Publishing, see solarpub.com
Eco-conscious books from Wisconsin publishers
ABCs Naturally: A Child's Guide to the Alphabet Through Nature
By Lynne Smith Diebel and Jann Faust Kalscheur
Introducing key eco concepts from the very start, through the alphabet.
Julie and the Eagles
By Megan McDonald, Robert Hunt, and Susan McAliley (American Girl)
Julie, American Girl's 1970s character, and her best friend become involved with animal rights through work at a wildlife rescue center, and come up with a plan for action on Earth Day. Includes a "Julie Saves the Eagles" computer video game, in which players work to save a family of endangered bald eagles.
Who was Aldo Leopold? coloring book
$2 + $2 shipping and handling
From the Aldo Leopold Nature Center
A simple story of the Wisconsin naturalist for young children.
Food Chains in a Backyard Habitat and Food Chains in a Forest Habitat
By Issac Nadeau
These books on urban ecology are by a former UW Arboretum staffer and are available at the Arboretum bookstore.