Books, toys teach environmental lessons
BY ANNE ENDICOTT
The Gresham Outlook, Aug 31, 2011
Parents and educators know the best way to teach children about important issues is to bring the information to their level.
And who better to introduce environmental awareness and protection than two pint-sized mythical creatures who stumble upon dangers to their own home.
“Kyla and Kristina are mermaids,” said Laura Burlus, author and illustrator of the recently released, “Mermaid Tales” children’s book. “They set off on vacation and band together with their friends to help clean up the waters where they live. Part II of the book, called ‘Help Make a Happy Earth,’ shows ways to help the environment where you live – turning off light switches, faucets, unplugging things when they’re not in use. We’re not trying to bully people into recycling and conservation. We’re trying to educate.”
“Mermaid Tales” is the first in a number of children’s books and toys planned by Burlus and sister, Karen Johnson, owners of the Troutdale-based Little Louie Toy Company. Designed to be environmentally friendly, the books are printed locally and made from soy-based inks and recycled paper. A portion of each book sale is also donated to a charity, selected to reflect the book’s theme and support environmental causes.
But being kind to Mother Nature isn’t something new to the sisters. Born and raised in southeast Portland, they learned to preserve and respect the environment through their father’s example.
“Dad was recycling and composting long before it was trendy,” Johnson said. “He stopped garbage service and everybody thought he was nuts. He buries food scraps in the backyard, feeds the birds and even recycles Saran Wrap. I didn’t really understand recycling until my family went to Disneyland. I couldn’t believe how much was being thrown out. There was no place to recycle anything.”
Burlus remembers being devastated after her favorite tree near the family’s home was cut down when she was 8 years old. The experience set a course for personal conservation and a way of life.
“I don’t own a car,” said the Troutdale resident. “Every job I’ve ever had has been close enough to my home that I could walk. I’m not a hardcore environmentalist, but I do believe people should conserve where they can and work to protect it.”
“Mermaid Tales” and its accompanying paper dolls (sold separately), are a way for children to take the story they’ve heard or read and apply it through creative play, Burlus said. They identify with the characters, no different than Mickey Mouse or Dora the Explorer, and want to emulate the lessons they teach.
“Kids see how Kyla and Kristina’s home is affected by garbage and will start telling mom, ‘Hey, don’t throw that away,’ ” she said. “Parents won’t tell their kids to not do something that’s good. But then kids tell other kids, and we hope that gets the parents involved as well. That’s why we’re a toy company. Kids don’t pretend play anymore. This is a way to start – they read, play and learn.”
Each successive book and related toy planned by the duo addresses other facets to the environmental issue. “Martini Racer,” scheduled for a fall release, is the story of a gas guzzling racecar that becomes an electric vehicle. Johnson recently completed the story of Little Louie, the company’s namesake, which tells of a bunny who builds a birdhouse for some homeless feathered friends using debris dropped by humans in a park.
The sisters’ mission isn’t limited to books and toys, however. Someday, they hope to open an educational amusement park based around the books’ characters. The venue would not only allow children to get up close and personal with Kyla, Kristina and their friends, but would also be a model for an eco-friendly and self-sustaining entertainment facility.
“Everything will be recycled and reused,” Burlus said. “When you pour water on garbage like food waste, and add some sunlight, you can actually create energy. We want to use that process, along with solar panels and wind mills, to power the park.”
Burlus and Johnson both respect those who strive to preserve the world around us but believe grassroots efforts and education can make a larger impact.
“It’s doesn’t take protecting 1,000 acres of trees to make a difference,” Burlus said. “If we all turned off the water, bought used and took our own bags to the store, think of what we could conserve. If everybody did the simple things, we could do so much more for the environment.”
Who: Little Louie Toy Company
What: Upstart Troutdale company, featuring environmentally-friendly children’s books and toys.
The book “Mermaid Tales” sells for $11.95 and is available online or at the Troutdale General Store, 289 E. Historic Columbia River Highway. Accompanying paper dolls retail for $8.95. $1 from the sale of each book and/or paper doll set benefits Eco-Justice Team Cascades Presbytery, Restoring Eden and The Oregon Center for Christian Values.