Nurturing a childhood fascination and a reverence for nature
A longer version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Canadian Children’s Book News which focusses on environmental literacy. Buy the issue today! Don’t forget to enter our Earth Day contest to win a free magazine and a book from each of the contributors to this article!
Communicating to children about the environment digs deeper than facts and figures. Inspiring a sense of wonderment over doom and gloom empowers kids to fall in love with the interconnected world that we all share.
Five authors who know how to transform the science into hope for our planet discuss the love they have for their vital work. They also explain why they are compelled to help kids and the environment find their way together.
Pamela is an award-winning author of over 40 non-fiction books for
children and youth. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Biology from the University of Waterloo. Before writing books, Pamela had several interesting jobs. She spent one summer in Edmonton wading in wetlands for Alberta’s mosquito control program. Pamela was also the Education Co-ordinator for the Ontario Naturalists for seven years. She wrote environmental education kits for teachers. She is still writing books, and also works as an editor. Pamela lives in Canning, Nova Scotia.
Etta Kaner writes non-fiction books for children of all ages as well a
s for teachers. Many of her books have won awards and have been translated into various languages. When she’s not writing or teaching, Etta enjoys spending time with her family, gardening, reading humorous or historical fiction books, exploring new places, cooking and dancing (but not all at the same time!) She does most of these activities in Toronto.
Elin Kelsey, PhD, is an award-winning author and a leading
spokesperson for hope and the environment. She is the author of bestselling children’s books including the collection You Are Stardust, Wild Ideas, You Are Never Alone and A Last Goodbye, illustrated by Soyeon Kim. Elin is the co-creator of #OceanOptimism, a Twitter campaign to crowd-source and share ocean conservation successes which has reached 90 million users to date. She is passionate about engaging kids in hopeful, science-based, environmental solutions.
Michelle Mulder is the author of seven books in the Orca Footprints series, including Home Sweet Neighborhood: Transforming Cities One Block at a Time, Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home, and Pedal It! How Bicycles Are Changing the World. She is also the author of several novels for young people including The Vegetable Museum and After Peaches. She lives in Victoria, BC.
Anuradha Rao is a Registered Professional Biologist, writer and
facilitator with a focus on coastal and marine ecosystems. She has worked on research, conservation, mapping, planning, policy, restoration and stewardship projects across Canada and in 12 other countries. She is the author of the book One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet and more than two dozen other publications in academic and popular media.
From reference books to picture books to inspirational stories about children improving their neighbourhood, how do you select the format for your work?
(PH) My earliest nature books were lengthy and illustrated in black and white. In those days, non-fiction was not really mainstream. Once colour was introduced, the shorter text and realistic images of plants and animals in the Animal Behavior series took on a popular picture-book appeal. Some of my favourite books are the My First Look at Nature series lift-the-flap books for very young children. I also enjoy the mixture of fiction and non-fiction in It’s Moving Day. My grandchildren love them. My recent Nature All Around series has introduced a more whimsical illustration style that is really engaging.
(EKaner) The format is determined by the topic and age group. But, no matter the format, I always try to make my books interactive and often humorous. The interactive component might be in the form of questions and answers like in Do Frogs Drink Hot Chocolate? or a book might have hands-on activities or experiments like in Wild Buildings and Bridges or Earth-Friendly Buildings, Bridges and More. Humour is achieved through voice in text, speech bubbles and illustrations.
(EKelsey) My editor, Mary Beth Leatherdale, suggested that exploration is carried through my books. Deeply interested in the science underneath the ideas, I had been writing non-fiction, explanation books with lots of content. She suggested that we create picture books, allowing the freedom of the work to invite a child to explore the ideas without immediately explaining them. I’m also a huge collaborator. I have worked with a great illustrator, Soyeon Kim, on all four of these picture books. She has such a wonderful way of creating a depth of feeling.
(MM) When I first approached Orca Book Publishers with the idea for Pedal It! How Bicycles Are Changing the World, the publisher, Andrew Wooldridge, suggested a series of books on environmental issues. All of my Orca Footprints books follow the same format: half history-and-science and half inspiring-and-totally-attainable-approaches-to-environmental-problems. I try to write in a conversational tone, including lots of colourful pictures with as much kid-appeal as possible. My goal is to get readers talking about important issues and then take off from there.
(AR) I get easily bored by non-fiction books. So, in writing a non-fiction book like One Earth, it was really important for me to create something that would be readable, engaging and fun to look at. Orca Book Publishers had also envisioned that it would have a lot of colourful photographs. So along with text that is broken down into bite-sized stories, I have pull-out quotes, fun facts, “what can you do” ideas, and photos with interesting captions.
How do you balance the need for awareness about urgent environmental issues and hope for the future?
(PH) It is important to inform youth about environmental issues, such as endangered species and climate change. It is equally important to show them how to help. Having hope inspires people of all ages. When youth understand an issue and want to help, it is good to give them a few ideas for what they can do. It may be as simple as pointing out some of the conservations groups who are doing vital work on the issues. Many kids have raised funds for various groups. It isn’t the dollar amount that’s important. It’s the effort and commitment to the cause that will prevail.
(EKaner) Making children aware of all the potential that nature has to offer can give them a sense of empowerment to make the world a better place. I try to excite children with the possibilities of learning from nature to solve human problems in my book Wild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature. The book ends with a challenge for children to use existing plants and animals to design structures that will deal with future sustainability as well as extreme climactic conditions.
(EKelsey) Our well-intentioned efforts to teach kids about the environment by focusing so heavily on problems too often leaves them feeling powerless and helpless. We owe children a more holistic understanding of not just what’s broken, but more importantly, what positive actions are having meaningful results. Keeping track of what is changing for the better in real time, and bringing evidence-based hope to life helps children to recognize their own agency. Children have very strong emotions about the state of the planet and I believe picture books are a safe place where they can share their feelings and see that resilience exists not only within themselves but within other species and ecosystems too. As adults, we need to reject the dead end narrative of doom and gloom, and focus on helping kids feel supported and empowered by seeing themselves within communities that care about the planet and are amplifying what’s working.
(MM) Facts are important. Passion is what will lead to action, though. When we feel huge love, gratitude, and reverence for the water, air, soil, and all our fellow creatures, we will do whatever we can to cherish and protect them. Hope is crucial, so beyond setting down the facts and nurturing fascination, I work hardest at offering hope.
(AR) Hope for the future drives my daily work on urgent environmental issues. I cannot sit back, watch, complain and do nothing. I have devoted my life and career to the protection of the environment and the people who depend on its integrity—which is all of us, but particularly the most marginalized. I use my knowledge as an ecologist to tackle the technical stuff, my voice as a writer to raise awareness, my skills as a facilitator to bring people together and my drive to get outdoors to remind myself why I’m doing it all in the first place.
How do your books make an impact?
(PH) I think my books provide a gateway to more exploration of a young reader’s natural environment. The books pique their interest and often provide activities that can further their own discovery. Inspiring youth and families to go outside and make their own investigations of their natural world is a big step towards building respect and stewardship for the environment.
(EKaner) I can only hope that they make an impact but I don’t really know for sure. I am grateful that publishers in countries outside of North America choose to translate them and publish them. I’m also thankful that educators choose to use them in their classrooms and in online programs.
(EKelsey) I am moved when someone gets in touch to tell me how A Last Goodbye, helped a child when someone they loved was dying. It’s touching to learn that some people read You Are Stardust as a love poem at their wedding. I am glad these picture books nurture compassionate, caring connections. I believe children arrive into the world as unique individuals. One of the beautiful things about picture books is that children often read them with someone who is close to them. I like to think of children exploring their ecological identities, while deepening important personal relationships.
(MM) When I first started writing for kids about the environment, a lot of children’s books on these topics felt dry to me, often quite gloomy, and with little or no reference to the powerful positive influence kids can have on the world. I tried to write something different, stories kids could relate to, with plenty of good news and ideas to balance out the heavy stuff. I wanted to write books that people of all ages would enjoy reading and would bring up in conversation. These conversations are the first huge step toward change.
(AR) Wow, I’m still learning about this. One Earth is my first book, so I’m on a learning curve about what that means and the impact I can have as a writer. I’d like to think that my book is helping people to make connections of all kinds and providing much-needed role models.
Please describe the feedback that you have received from your young readers.
(PH) I have conducted many workshops in schools and libraries across Canada using my books. Kids always respond eagerly to the amazing life histories of animals. When I show them how to make simple gadgets that they can use to continue exploring on their own, they can’t wait to get outside and do it. It makes me laugh when I hear comments between kids like, “I can’t believe a girl likes snakes!” I’m happy to change the perception that spiders, toads and snakes are only for boys!!
(EKaner) Many of my books work on different levels. Older children appreciate the interactive features of my books as well as the humour. Younger readers love to join in the patterned language that some of my books contain.
(EKelsey) Kids often ask me “Is that true?” when they read that pigeons procrastinate in Wild Ideas or that “Inside your brain, electricity stronger than lightning powers your every thought ” in You Are Stardust. It’s thrilling to write exploratory books that combine poetic language, current science and gorgeous illustrations to immerse young readers in the wonders of life. In You Are Never Alone, kids are surprised by the chemistry behind why they feel good when they gaze lovingly into a dog’s eyes – and to discover that the dog feels good too!
(MM) When I visit schools, I meet kids of all ages and backgrounds who are super-excited about what they can do to improve the world they live in. My favourite feedback is when kids tell me that reading one of my books inspired them to start an environmental club in their school, or start a community garden, or hold a bake sale to raise money for something they’re passionate about. I love arriving at a school full of posters made by kids taking action!
(AR) So far the feedback has focused on cool things about the people in One Earth with whom my young readers identify. The youngest readers, in particular, enjoy looking through the pictures and seeing the variety of people doing interesting things in nature. My book was published at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown, which has meant no in-person visits that would normally provide opportunities for direct feedback. I would LOVE to hear more from my young readers. Please contact me via my website www.ekalogical.com/contact, Instagram @ekalogical or Twitter @OneEarthBook.
Why do you enjoy your work? What do you find rewarding about it?
(PH) Writing about something as amazing as the natural world is a great pleasure. I’m always discovering new aspects of wildlife and their habitats that are so interesting. Finding ways to explain complicated concepts and processes also challenges me creatively. When I can share my knowledge and enthusiasm with young and old alike, it is fun and rewarding to see them getting excited, too. Inspiring a life-long interest and respect for the environment is a worthwhile goal.
(EKaner) The best part of writing my books is the research—finding out about surprising, weird, or incredible elements of nature that I didn’t know before. If I’m lucky, I get to interview an expert who gives me details that I wouldn’t find in any written resource. These experts are usually just as excited to share their knowledge as I am to receive it.
(EKelsey) I am insatiably fascinated by the astonishing capabilities and resilience of other species. I love watching new scientific concepts and societal ideas emerge. Hope lies within the capacity for stories to change. I love to continually learn and to share what I’m learning. I respect children and I want them to have access to that current information in ways that delight and inspire them.
(MM) I love learning about people creating brilliant solutions to problems, and I love sharing those stories. Admittedly, I also enjoy feeling like a secret member of a powerful movement. Sometimes another adult hears what I do for a living and says, “How sweet! You write little books! How nice for you!” and then I go into a classroom full of young readers who are bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, teaching their parents how to conserve water, raising community awareness about a local issue, and working on a letter campaign to the government, and I grin. “Little books” with big ideas can change the world, and I feel so lucky to be a part of this.
(AR) There are many layers to my work, and that’s what I love about it. I like to experience diversity in all aspects of my life. My primary career is as a marine conservation biologist. I enjoy working on meaningful projects in beautiful natural spaces with diverse colleagues that simultaneously help heal the Earth and contribute to social justice. And I love to write. When I can bring all those things together, I am in bliss.