children's literature

Children’s books can do more to inspire the new generation of Earth warriors

Children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet. Their knowledge and engagement are critical.

A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.

Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.

A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.

Environmental diversity

Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.

Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.

In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.

Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.

Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.

Earth warriors

As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.

When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.

Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.

We need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.