Once upon a time, children's books were the stuff of princesses menaced by dark forests and big, bad wolves gobbling up innocents. Now the people threaten the forests, and the wild creatures are themselves the innocents.
In a new wave of books that promote such causes as recycling, forest preservation and pesticide-free food, publishers and authors are attempting to make money and mold young minds with environmental message books for children.
The themes have proven as popular with publishers as they are noxious to industry, which complains that the books are often manipulative and one-sided. Animal books now tend to mention endangered species. Forests are portrayed as vital, their destruction devastating.
In one book, a penguin named Pinkie swims through an oil slick and loses his feathers. Shivering and shaking, poor Pinkie leaves his home for warmer climates.
Another picture book tells of a blue whale that befriends a young child. The hapless whale vanishes at the book's end, leaving parents to explain that whalers may have killed the child's friend.
Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have entered the eco-war. In a mass-produced ABC's book -- "A is for acid rain" -- the feisty reptiles warn about the dangers of ozone depletion, global warming and pesticides.
Some industries have swamped publishers with furious letters about their environmental books or tried, with limited success, to ban them from schools.
Though the Ninja Turtle book says "P is for Pesticides," wrote an angry chemical company executive to the publisher, "P is also for Propaganda."
Publishers and librarians tend to date the popularity of such books to the 1989 Alaska oil spill or to the consciousness-raising 20th anniversary of Earth Day a year later.
The success of the 1990 book "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Planet," which has sold more than 750,000 copies, also propelled publishers to try to cash in on interest in the environment.
In a recent best-sellers' list by Publishers Weekly, two of the top 10 children's fiction books contained environmental themes. But not all environmental books sell well. Those with well-known authors and compelling illustrations may make it to the top, while others languish.
At the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Towson branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, environmental message books are on the shelves -- although librarians say they were not ordering an unusually high number of the books, nor were children or their parents asking for them.
Though quality is improving, some store owners say many environmental kids' books still tend to be preachy and didactic.
"They're depressing for me," said Washington children's bookstore owner Jewell Stoddard. "They must be depressing for kids."
Ms. Stoddard said that she recently rejected for sale a series of books narrated by the Earth about endangered species. In the book, according to Ms. Stoddard, the Earth demands to know where her animals are. They are all endangered.
"It's a very accusatory tone for children," she said. "Children aren't responsible and are fairly helpless in the global picture."
Although spokesmen of various industries say they like books that encourage children to recycle or pick up litter, they oppose those that imply logging is wrong or pesticides are unsafe.
Industries have retaliated by distributing free coloring books thatpromote their views. Some sponsor field trips for children and educators.
One publishing executive said she believes that the recent trend in environmental childrens' books has already peaked, with publishers now switching to "multicultural" themes.
"Kids getting involved always appeals to other kids, so the environment is just a natural subject," said Jane O'Connor, vice president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap Inc. "But I wouldn't want to do a book series called 'The Little Environmentalist' . . . or a book called 'The Little Engine That Could Use Less Fuel.' "