The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story

Written and Illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2011
ISBN 978-0-374-34913-4
Grades 3-8 
Book Review
There are wetlands, and there are wetlands. For many adults, the Meadowlands of New Jersey can rouse certain images: chemical factories belching out smoke, Tony Soprano, the massive convergence of crowded highways leading in and out of Manhattan via bridge and tunnel, or Giants Stadium. For many kids, it  conjures up nothing at all; until now, that is. Author-illustrator Thomas Yezerski offers readers the opportunity to witness the transformation of the Meadowlands from life-giving natural resource, to vile embarrassment, to the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. In Meadowlands, we see destruction of habitat and rampant pollution, but also the tenacity with which Mother Nature fights back and perseveres. While this book chronicles one location, there are wetlands and watersheds all over our nation in some stage of this cycle of destruction and preservation, and therein lies the ultimate power of this book. Yezerski uses watercolors to dramatically convey information and mood, and writes without finger-pointing or blame. In the end, the heroes who get center stage are the herons, the mudflats, and the fiddler crabs.
Teaching Invitations
Grades 3-5
  • Where Does Your Garbage Grow? Trash was one of the major pollutants of the Meadowlands. Have students trace the path of garbage from their home or your school to its final resting place. Where does the garbage go? How big are the piles? What impact does this have on the nearby community? Is the garbage located near a watershed? How does it impact your local water?
  • Exploring Watercolors. Throughout Meadowlands, Yezerski’s skillful watercolor paintings reveal the destruction and restoration of the Meadowlands by depicting facts but also conveying the mood of the text. Pair Meadowlands with another illustrated book from the list below (see Further Explorations), and compare and contrast the ways in which the illustrators have used their art to convey information and express mood. Provide students the opportunity to do the same, by reading an informational article on an environmental issue from a children’s or young adult science magazine, available through your library’s electronic databases, and creating water color illustrations to convey what they’ve learned.
  • Cycles of an Ecosystem. In the second half of the book, Yezerski takes the reader through the cycles of the Meadowlands within one day, using the stages of the cycle to detail the ways in which the habitat has been restored and the positive impact this has had on flora and fauna. What are the cycles of your local ecosystem? Have students take digital pictures throughout the day, for several days in a row, of a nearby pond, stream, meadow, or forest area. What do students observe? What changes? What stays the same? Why? What questions do students have about the health of the ecosystem? Where can they go to get their answers?
Grades 6-8
  • Making Connections, Digging Deeper. Divide students into pairs to research the images along the borders of each two-page spread. How do these various, and at times surprising, objects connect with the information contained within the text and primary illustrations that share the two-page spread? How do these objects fit into the kaleidoscope that is the Meadowlands? Have students research the objects to make these deeper connections, and share their information with the class.
  • Mentor Text. Have students conduct research on a local natural habitat. Students may work individually, in pairs, or in groups. Using Meadowlands as a mentor text, have students convey what they have learned through words and pictures, making specific use of objects in the border, as Yezerski does, to expand their readers’ understanding. 

Critical Literacy 

  • Meadowlands Portraits. For thousands of years, human beings have relied on the Meadowlands, but in very different ways. Within the text of the book, we don’t hear the voices of these people through direct quotes. What do they have to say about the Meadowlands of the past, present, and future? Have students write short, first-person vignettes from the points-of-view of various residents or neighbors of the Meadowlands, from the Lenni Lenape and early colonists to 20th century corporate executives and home owners.
  • Migrating Birds. Meadowlands details the destruction of bird habitat and the resulting exodus. How are migrating birds surviving in your area? Have students research bird populations in your area to discover which are threatened. You may want have someone from your state Fish and Wildlife Service as well as your local Audobon Society chapter come in to class or Skype with your class. In groups, have students create posters to convey this information to the school community and offer steps that students and their families can take to protect bird species in your area. Students may not all be in agreement on what those next steps might be!
  • What’s for Dinner? Meadowlands details what happened to fish when the water they lived in was contaminated with chemicals and other pollutants. Is your school located near a local source of fish? Have students read local, state, and federal reports on the local fresh and/or saltwater fish populations popular with commercial and recreational fishermen and women. Students may want to do interviews as well. How safe are the fish? Have students recommend next steps, based on their research, and write to their local, state, and federal representatives to request action. Students may not all be in agreement on what those next steps might be!
  • Adopt Your Watershed.  Explore the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Adopt Your Watershed” Program (see link below in Further Explorations). See if organizations in your area are already actively protecting wetlands, and if not, explore the different steps your school community can take, from organizing a trash pick-up day to building a rain garden.
  • Endangered Wetlands. Do you have endangered wetlands in your area? Using your local newspaper and other resources available through your library’s electronic databases, have students research current problems your community or state faces, as well as solutions suggested by experts. Write letters to your state and federal representatives requesting action, using your research as well the evidence of success depicted in Meadowlands. Students may not all be in agreement on what those next steps might be!
Further Explorations 
Online Resources 
Thomas Yezerski’s Website
Hackensack Riverkeeper
National Wetlands Research Center
New Jersey Meadowlands Commission
Wild New Jersey
EPA “Adopt Your Watershed” Program
Bang, M. (2000). Nobody particular. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Bang reveals, in picture book format, Diane Wilson’s efforts to save the Gulf of Mexico from pollution and preserve the shrimp industry in East Texas, a saga relevant yet again, given the 2010 oil spill.
Cherry, L. (1992). A river ran wild: An environmental history. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • In this nonfiction picture book, Cherry chronicles the devastating impact of 19th and early 20th century industrialization on the Nashua River in New Hampshire as well as the efforts mid-20th century to protect the river, and its subsequent  successful recovery.
George, J. C. (2008). The wolves are back. Ill. by W. Minor. New York: Dutton Books.
  • This nonfiction picture book details the removal and restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and the impact the restoration had on the surrounding ecosystems and animals.
Patent, D. H. (2008). When the wolves returned: restoring nature’s balance in Yellowstone. Ill. by D. Hartman and C. Hartman. New York: Walker.
  • This picture book photo essay also details the removal and restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and the impact the restoration had on the surround ecosystems and animals.
Sidman, J. (2010). Ubiquitous: Celebrating nature’s survivors. Ill. by B. Prange. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • In this picture book poetry collection, Sidman celebrates creatures that have managed to adapt, like the Meadowlands, in order to survive.
Talbott, H. (2009). River of dreams: The story of the Hudson River. New York: Putnam.
  • This history of New York’s Hudson River depicts its many roles as a source of food, transportation, power, and artistic inspiration. It also discusses the near destruction of the Hudson and the efforts made to fight pollution and restore the river.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.