Almost exactly 20 years ago, I was writing what would become my first published novel, Floodland. Set in a future Britain in which rising sea levels from climate change have seen half of the country disappear under the waves, it came out in March 2000. Obviously, the publication of one’s first book is an intense thing, and there are lots of memories, but one thing that happened surprised me at the time. When the book was published, that year, it was very wet in England. (This is not the thing that surprised me, that’s coming.) In fact, there were epic floods across the country and it was making national news. Such apt publicity for a book release is clearly tricky to arrange – never mind that the kind of flooding I was writing about in the book, due to sea levels rising, was not the kind of flooding that was occurring that spring, which was due to excessive rain fall and rivers bursting their banks as a consequence. Though both, of course, are a consequence of climate change. What surprised me was that many people said to me, quite genuinely, how clairvoyant I must have been to write a book about flooding just before it was about to happen.
To be honest, I found this ridiculous – climate change is not a new story now, and it wasn’t a new story 20 years ago either. (Theories of climate change stretch back to the early 19th century.) The very fact that my slim novel had grown out of a request from a publisher for short stories about climate change showed that this was on lots of people’s minds. But in the strange (I thought) reaction I received to my book’s theme, I learned something important – just because we might think something is well-known, accepted scientific fact, doesn’t mean everyone does. That’s why it’s very important that we continue to speak (even at risk of boring ourselves) about the vitally important matters that need to change in the world – in this case, climate change. And of course, the best way to do this is to work with younger people. Most adults, once they have made up their mind about something, never change it, regardless of how ill-informed their choice was, how sparse or incorrect the information they based their decision on. And frankly alarming experiments into confirmation bias show us that once made, even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, most people stick to whatever they have decided is ‘right.’
It is for this reason that I was delighted that Floodland was later accepted as part of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Power of Reading project, and has been actively used in primary schools for most of its life. The work that CLPE do across the board is both powerful and well thought out. Kicking against the pricks of successive ill-informed education ministers with their unworkable and ineffective schemes – phonics, ‘learning objectives’, all the National Curriculum box-ticking exercises – CLPE produce excellent material that primary teachers can use in the classroom, based around the use of ‘real’ books, which are read in their entirety over the course of a term, perhaps, and then explored and expanded in a variety of ways: through art, drama, science, music and so on. The work I am still sent every week from teachers who’ve worked with the book makes me happy enough; the letters I get from young students bring tears to my eyes.
Incidentally, thinking back to confirmation bias, other research shows that people’s minds are more easily changed by fictional accounts (ie books and films) than by factual accounts (ie news stories and scientific pieces). So working with books like the ones on this site is a genuinely positive step for change.
That’s why I am pleased to be able to offer here the CLPE’s (recently updated) scheme of work for Floodland, for you to share with whichever primary teachers you happen to be, or know. Thank you to CLPE for offering this work gratis. If you’re interested in Primary Education, you probably already know about their work, but if not, go here and see more of the resources they have to offer.
(May 2018, Updated November 2020)
MARCUS SEDGWICK is a writer of novels for adults, novels for younger people and of non-fiction. He is winner of many prizes, most notably the 2014 Michael L. Printz Award for his novel Midwinterblood. Climate change fiction by Marcus includes Snowflake, AZ and Floodland.
The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield by Cara Hoffman was published this month by HarperCollins. I talk to the author of the middle grade novel about her new release, and her motivations for writing about climate change.
Tell us about your new book.
The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield is an environmental fable about frog and his doctor cousin who live in a Louisiana swamp. Their lives are happy until many of the creatures in the swamp become sick and it’s up to them to find out the source of the illness and protect their world. I couldn’t have anticipated when I started writing a second children’s novel about a singing frog, a mysterious illness and an uprising—that we would be living with a mysterious illness, with multiple uprisings throughout the country, and that our children would be confined at home, audience to the collective anxiety of the nation; to California burning; to the tears of parents who lost jobs, family, faith in better society. Children live and adapt to the terrors of the adult world. Part of the reason I wrote The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield is because Children alive today have the biggest challenge in front of them—adapting to the climate crisis. And adults should respect the depth of their burden, support them and also give them cause for joy because joy helps assure survival. As a writer, and just as a fellow creature on this planet, the most important work I can be doing now is in aiding the people who will be left with the crisis—helping them to understand it and withstand it.
How does climate change play into the plot?
The narrative arc of the novel is about a changing landscape, extinction events and then discovering the source of the problem and working together, even with people you disagree with, to help fix that problem. Most of all I wanted kids to see that the red and blue, the binary, the black and white world that has taken over the collective imagination in our country can change. We can work with people we disagree with to make a world in which all can live. I wanted to write about resourcefulness: lemmings who can sew their own parachutes, frogs who can hop trains, and water rats who can outwit alligators. We all need a little of that resourcefulness right now in taking on the climate crisis.
What kind of research did you do when writing it?
I researched the bayou and did extensive research on frogs. Most of the research for this book was part of work I had done as an environmental reporter.
What are some of your favourite books about climate change?
Elizabeth Kolbert’s work is some of the most important on climate change. I try to avoid book on the subject that are dystopic, stick to what’s realistic. There is an amazing book for children written by the astronaut Sally Ride, Mission: Save the Planet which looks at the interdependence of ecosystems. This message is essential for kids—we’re all in it together. As Tubs says, “A creature is a creature.”
Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?
I worked for about twelve years as an environmental reporter in the rust belt and in rural New York State. This kind of reporting is mostly covering corporate crimes; illegal dumping—and sometimes all too legal dumping by industries. I covered racist and class-based redlining that causes increased cases of cancer and other illnesses in certain neighborhoods. I covered industrial farming practices that cause ocean dead zones and soil erosion, extinction, and illness among humans. It was an education.
Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?
The climate crisis is going to affect everyone personally, whether they are directly experiencing it right now or not. Fiction as a form of art is how humans engage with experiences and emotions beyond those of their immediate circumstances, and it’s how many people come to understand the landscape of their own emotional lives, and learn about other lives and other places. As an act of communication, and a way of communing with and thinking about other beings it’s hard to improve upon.
What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?
There are lots of things kids can be doing. The most important thing is changing the way we think about the environment. taking time to be in nature if it’s possible, taking time to notice other forms of life and seeing how interconnected our environment is. The earth doesn’t belong to people, people belong to the earth. I’ve been interested in this project through the National Forest Foundation where people are planting fifty million trees. They are replanting trees everywhere in the country from Florida to Alaska. Their goal is to repopulate the forests. Trees of course help filter carbon out of the atmosphere and help clean the air. Forests help filter and supply water and provide homes for animals of all kinds. They help provide a healthy habitat for four hundred species—including humans. I’d encourage kids and their parents to google the National Forest Foundation to find out more.
You can find out more about The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield here.
Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and an Autostraddle Best Queer and Feminist Book of 2017. She first received national attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
Climate Fiction in the News