Raising Rippers

Putting Adventure Back in Children’s Reading

The upcoming picture book ‘The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth’ is a welcome counterweight to our kids’ plugged-in lives.

Putting Adventure Back in Children’s Reading

A scene from Chris Burkard's children's book, "The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth," illustrated by David McClellan. Photo: David McClellan

On March 2, renowned surf and adventure photographer Chris Burkard watched eagerly as his first Kickstarter campaign went live. He wasn't funding a far-flung assignment to the frigid waters of Siberia or plotting an expedition to Patagonia. He was launching his first children's book.

The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth tells the story of a young explorer who travels the world seeking happiness in nature. Burkard, a 28-year-old father of two boys, ages one and three, first got the idea for the book when he was approached by Dreamling Books, a new publisher based in Salt Lake City. "We asked him, what lessons would you like to teach your sons?" recalls publisher Benjamin Ehlert.

Burkhard's answer: Don't be afraid of the unknown.

It's a fitting message for the self-taught adventure photographer, and for Dreamling Books’ debut. Founded in 2013, Dreamling pairs aspiring writers like Burkard with artists like David McClellan, an illustrator and environmental artist for Disney Interactive, who digitally painted Burkhard's images for this project. Ehlert says the publishing house aims to create books that "inspire kids to follow their dreams and become better people, especially to get outdoors and explore."

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Burkard's photography career has taken him across the globe.   Photo: Chris Burkard

The monthlong Kickstarter campaign, which launched on March 2 (Dr. Suess's birthday), has already raised nearly $60,000 to date, more than doubling its goal of $25,000. The book is expected to hit shelves by July.

In The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth—aimed at five-to-eight-year-olds but just as relevant to harried parents and intrepid adventurers—the young explorer ventures to the mountains, desert, forest and coast. But he's so caught up in the effort of traveling that he doesn't pay attention to the wonder that surrounds him. "Happiness," says Ehlert, "was around him all the time but he hadn't been looking for it."

See Burkard's photos that inspired the book's illustrations.

For a mother of two young girls who are both blossoming readers, it's easy to see The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth as a much-needed antidote to the hectic, wired world into which we've thrust our children. But as conditioned to the world as they've become, this is not their natural habitat. Like Burkard's young hero, they belong outside, in the fresh air and wide open, exploring their world and expanding their curiosity in ways that are increasingly independent of us, their parents. "We're not trying to tell people to send their kids out alone," says Burkard, whose images have appeared in Surfer magazine and Patagonia catalogs. "It's more about allowing them to seek out the things that inspire them. We get so inundated in our lives that we miss what they're interested in."

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  Photo: David McClellan

And for upstart Dreamling, the project marks the beginning of a bold new experiment in kids' books. Ehlert is in discussion with Olympic snowboarder Torah Bright and Amazing Race winner Connor O'Leary, as well as high-profile climbers, to pen their own children's adventure tales. "What's tricky about athletes is that they're usually off the grid, which is where they should be," concedes Ehlert. "We're all about finding authors who are pursuing their passion and inspiring people, whether they realize it or not. They're not doing it for fame or recognition, they're just doing what they love."

Ultimately, The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth isn't just a model for publishing and promoting children's literacy, but for parenting, too. "It's a way to inspire a whole different generation," Burkard explains. "Inspiration is paramount to me, especially now as a father of two kids. I would love to inspire them to ask those tough questions: Where can I find happiness? What does it mean to feel joy? I hope my kids can walk away thinking that a lot of the answers they need in life, they can find in nature, and not on the Internet."

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