What’s on the shelf: children’s nonfiction on climate change
by Joan Haig, plus Venetia Welby and A. E. Copenhaver discuss their adult novels
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My first nonfiction book for children is published by Templar Books next month. Talking History, co-authored with Joan Lennon and illustrated fabulously by André Ducci, takes a critical look at 15 famous speeches and the people and events surrounding them. Two of the speeches relate directly to the climate crisis. The team behind the book, however, sees all of these speeches as highly relevant to the cause, and our hope is that young readers will too. Evidence from Human Rights Watch shows that the way we treat each other is intimately related to the way we treat our planet.
And how we treat our planet is a growing category of books for young people.
Book cataloguing and marketing depends on categorisation – and in nonfiction, this is dedicated to ‘issues’ as well as genres. Importantly, the way books are categorised changes over time and across different spaces. After all, the labels we give to objects, fellow humans, and situations are never immutable facts – they are invented. So, a book of stories about neurodiverse people will no longer be placed exclusively under ‘The Human Mind’, but also, perhaps, in a section for ‘Diverse Voices’. And it will share a shelf with a book about indigenous rights that had previously been located in ‘World Culture’. I teach travel writing for a US liberal arts college. It’s a shrinking section in the bookshop. The books are still being written, but they’ve been labelled differently – ‘Memoir’ or ‘Nature Writing’, mostly.
Sometimes, books and their authors defy categories. Dara McAnulty’s books sit in just about all of the sections named above and a few others, including ‘Inspirational People’ and ‘Activity Books’. His Wild Child: A Journey through Nature is a gentle set of lessons on how to engage with the natural world on our doorsteps. One thing I love about McAnulty’s books is how he demonstrates the personal rewards our connection with the world around us can give; and we know that connecting with nature improves our physical and mental wellbeing. He also explains to young readers that the idea of ‘nature’ is relatively new – it, too, is socially constructed – a lesson many adults have not yet absorbed. Simply, we cannot keep separating our own species and its needs from the natural world.
There are many brilliant books on nature and natural history. They are hugely powerful in sparking young people’s compassion and fascination with other forms of life on Earth, especially for children who find fiction a challenge. There are dozens to choose from. My favourites bridge a gap between straight fact and storytelling. From Shore to Ocean Floor by Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen is a stand-out for me, as is The Big Book of Belonging by Yuval Zommer – both are beautiful and brimming with nuggets for readers to take away, think about and share. And Leisa Stewart-Sharpe (Blue Planet II, What a Wonderful World, How Does Chocolate Taste on Everest? and more) is a wizard at pulling in readers for the narrative adventure, and then equipping them with knowledge and confidence along the way. There is also the beautiful work of Dom Conlon (Leap Hare, Leap and others), which collapses into one another the categories of ‘Poetry’, ‘Picture Books’ and ‘Nature’.
There is a growing emphasis in kids’ books on learning about the natural world not only for the joy of it but for the explicit purpose of rescuing it. Titles such as It’s Up to Us (Christopher Lloyd), How You Can Save the Planet (Hendrikus van Hensbergen), Activists Assemble – Save Your Planet (Ben Hoare and Jade Orlando) and Kids Fight Climate Change (Martin Dorey and Tim Wesson) almost warrant their own set of shelves. These are, doubtless, driven by young people wanting to act. I do worry, though, that these prescriptive books place the onus on the next generation, when the industry behind the books is still struggling to reduce its own carbon footprint and guarantee ethical supply chains. We need young people on board, of course, but a more accountability on the part of publishers might see more immediate impact.
One of the marvellous things about publishing with Templar, part of Bonnier Books, is how seriously they take issues of sustainability and inclusion. In January 2021, Bonnier went beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative, by reducing and offsetting emissions and investing in projects that capture greenhouses gases. They currently offset by a significant 20%. So, technically, if you buy a book from a Bonnier subsidiary, you are helping to reduce carbon emissions. Bonnier has taken a holistic approach to sustainability that tackles social inclusion and the climate emergency as intimately connected. Perhaps this is why, for me, Talking History, at its core, has grown to be about both those things. I am curious to know how the book will be catalogued. It won’t be under ‘Nature’. On the face of it, the speeches in the book are wide ranging – about war, voting rights, girls’ education – but each one is actually about empathy and the need to act together, urgently, for positive change. And if that doesn’t speak to our current environmental predicament, I’m not sure what does.
Find out more about Joan’s books Talking History and Middle Grade fantasy Tiger Skin Rug, which takes young readers on a wild adventure with three friends and a magical tiger. It touches on themes of belonging, conservation and habitat destruction.
Joan Haig was born in a Zambian village and brought up there and in Vanuatu. She has also lived with street kids and monks in India, and alongside pirates in Nigeria. She now lives in Scotland where she teaches in higher education and is an Author-in-Residence for the Scottish Book Trust. Her debut children's novel Tiger Skin Rug (Cranachan Publishing, 2020, Europa Editions US, 2021) was nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2021. During the 2020 lockdown, Joan edited Stay at Home! Poems and Prose for Children Living in Lockdown (Cranachan Publishing). Her first nonfiction book for children, Talking History: 150 Years of Speeches and Speakers, is out in January 2022 with Templar Books.
Pairing Humor with Atrocity
Authors Venetia Welby and A. E. Copenhaver discuss their adult climate fiction novels.
Venetia Welby: I loved My Days of Dark Green Euphoria. It’s such an original idea – and absolutely of our time, encompassing the generational divide, the visceral exhaustion of the professional activist. Can you tell me something about what inspired you to write this novel?
A. E. Copenhaver: Why thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. I really enjoyed writing it. Part of what inspired this novel is the absurdity of what’s going on here on Earth. You don’t even have to be a professional activist to watch the headlines every morning to think, something is really wrong here.
In the novel the main character Cara works at an environmental non-profit so it’s her job to witness these issues and then help temper them. So the professional activist helps shed light on the magnitude of these compounding issues—climate change, ecocide, genocide, social inequity, racial injustices, all the daily atrocities skipping across our screens—and the cultural drivers exacerbating the issues.
I’ve always been drawn to the intersection between ethics and individual vices (like drinking and smoking and doing drugs), and to me it feels like we have reached a point where we can conceive of societal vices driving societal inequities.
For example, given what we know about industrial animal agriculture, is eating meat when we don’t have to considered a personal choice or a societal vice? And at what point are we no longer considered good people or no longer seen as making good choices in our daily lives, and who’s judging us?
So this novel is inspired by magnifying those curiosities, by wanting to explore someone who is straddling that line between doing (her own version of) good on one side and then indulging in actively choosing not to care on the other. And—once we know and care, is it even possible to truly turn that caring, compassionate part of ourselves off? Or do we have to find other means of relief, and if so, what might that look like?
AEC: As for your novel Dreamtime, I am floored by the sharp writing, by the urgency of the story (set in a near-future Earth plagued by climate change devastation) and yet at the same time, the slowed warping of Sol’s reality as she seeks her long lost father. Would you share a little more about if or how you imagine the climate crisis is affecting our experience of time?
VW: You’re absolutely right that the doom news is right there for us. We cannot say we didn’t know: it’s inescapable. Being human means having to confront our own inevitable individual deaths, but watching the climate catastrophe unfold forces us to contemplate this on a grand scale. Now we must consider the end of our species, of civilisation, of all that we have known the earth to be and contain. Seeing the spectacular rate at which we’re destroying our only available habitat creates a sense of time running out, and I hoped to recreate this sense of urgency in the novel as Sol battles to get across Japan before commercial aviation ceases.
There is also a timelessness involved, a sense of the eternal that is magnified when we think of humanity on its deathbed – its myths, beliefs and legends. Our collective psyche is also potentially on the way out and making itself felt. Sol and her friend Kit grew up in a commune called Dreamtime, a name based on the founder’s experience in the Australian outback. For the Aboriginal people, the Dreamtime or Dreaming is at the heart of a complex religio-cultural belief system: a time out of time, a place out of place, in which the ancestral spirits of creation and their stories still live. In the Dreamtime cult, however, this eternal otherworld is reduced to a prize for the stoned who seek it, and appropriated as a cover for predation.
Much of the novel is set in the Ryukyu Islands, in particular Okinawa, still in 2035 at the mercy of its Japanese colonisers and the vast number of US military bases that currently occupy it. This is a place where the suffering, pollution and abuse has been so pervasive that the past is still alive in the present, and its ghosts continue to haunt even the near future I’ve envisaged. The timelines are blurred in a place like this, and invisible boundaries are constantly shifting. Time is stretchy, and the eternal world is just beyond the veil.
That all sounds extremely depressing, I know, but there’s humour in Dreamtime too. How – and why – did you balance creating such a funny, relatable narrative with the harrowing subject matter? Despite the prevalence of the news, I still learnt terrifying new things from My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, but I also laughed. A lot.
AEC: As for why I paired humor with atrocity—I just find satire a really delightful genre. I remember reading Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in grade school and feeling totally thrilled—I thought, “Wow, is this even…allowed?” I loved the concept of using absurdity to parody atrocity, which then places our actual behaviors into stark relief—so that what we believe to be normal (maybe it’s eating meat or using people as a means to create commodities, whatever)—suddenly seems outrageous. There’s something magical and satisfying in that formula, so I’m really glad to hear you learned something but also laughed. That’s what I was hoping for!
I keep thinking about the concept of time in both of our novels. A lot of people have reported experiencing a sort of time warping since the pandemic especially. In my novel—even I as the writer lost track of the main character’s timeline—the publishers and I had to piece everything back together. We found that not even three months had passed since my main character Cara’s boyfriend departs and then she ends up entranced and entangled with his ecologically ignorant mother Millie, trying to escape her clutches. But to me it felt like 10 months or something—that time had slowed and expanded, took up way more space.
I wonder about how humans are asked to contemplate all these different timescales when even just imagining the magnitude of the climate crisis. We have to clumsily count on our fingers from the last ice age, make tally marks for the dinosaurs and the glaciers melting, add up the five separate mass extinctions, plus one for this current (sixth) mass extinction.
This exercise puts our own mortality in context, as you said, but also, at least for my character Cara, forces her to consider her own legacy and what she wants to be remembered for.
Humans have always been concerned about their legacy, but at one point Cara—whose defining feature is her crippling eco-anxiety—thinks about how maybe the best legacy to leave is nothing—nothing needing to be repaired, mended or solved or healed. Alternatively, I think a lot about other cultures—like, the myriad Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest, and how though so many of those different cultures and Peoples were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, their legacy, the ways they lived in their corner of the globe, perseveres in greater ecosystems there. There’s something called ‘forest gardens’—wild places where Native Americans cultivated a foundation of health and resilience and vitality that to this day allows greater biodiversity to thrive in those same spaces—even though the Indigenous People who once lived there have been removed and no longer have a regular presence there in the same way as their Ancestors. This is the kind of legacy I’m so fascinated by and I think Cara gets around to considering, too.
This brings to mind the concept—explored extensively in your novel—of healing and recovery. Sol and Kit are coming to terms with their childhood spent in a truly damaging cult (maybe ‘damaging cult’ is redundant?). In many ways, modern society feels like a deranged, toxic cult that we all participate in, some more than others. And at this point in time the collective ‘we’ seems to be coming to terms with this cult.
And also permeating both of our novels is this desire for, as Sol puts it, “the state of divine apathy […].” Sol of course was talking about actual heroin, and Cara in my novel uses similar language to describe how she feels when she’s with the ecologically unconscious and blind Millie.
I think this desire for oblivion, for some kind of instant relief, when paired with the profound oppression and atrocity spanning the globe, is what makes for moments of hilarity. Like, “oh our species might not survive in any meaningful way through the end of this century, and we might take most all other species down too, but why not enjoy this rack of donuts? It’s probably the right thing to do.” What you said earlier about humor—how you learned some terrifying new things in my novel but also found yourself laughing a lot—I had a nearly exact experience with your novel! The Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa in particular are such a perfect setting for showing the persistent violence of colonization and, as if the colonizers are fighting their own homesickness, the vapid and comedic display of often eye-rolling elements of that home (in this case American) culture. Those moments where Sol and Kit watch this clash take place on the back streets were exceptional and often amusing to witness.
Now, I know you’ve written about this before in other outlets, but I’m hoping you can share more about your own experience in Okinawa and in the States. I was impressed with how your novel absorbs both of those cultures so seamlessly—you’re from the UK originally, right? Do you find that your extensive travels push you to find new and creative ways to explore disparate places, cultures, and people?
VW: I agree with your idea of the whole world as a cult – there’s certainly something cultlike in the way we slavishly pursue the very things that make our own destruction assured. I wonder if my extensive travel is part of this – there does seem to be a raging hypocrisy in me setting a novel in deepest climate crisis yet flying to Japan to research it. Travel is the thing that most thrills me, and exploring other cultures, experiencing other lives. Mostly I’ve travelled for work – for example to tutor A levels at an Arizonan rehab clinic. I stayed nearby in the Sonoran desert, in a hotel which aped local rituals, lifted from exactly those displaced Indigenous Peoples to which you refer. These six months informed the beginning of Dreamtime, Sol’s futuristic rehab, the soulless void of which is crammed with stolen rituals. Separated from their spiritual and cultural roots these practices become increasingly ridiculous – bloated and obscene.
So yes, I’m from the UK but I’ve spent a lot of time outside it, living – for example – in Beijing in the early 2000s to tutor children on their way to UK boarding schools. This certainly helped inform the wider political situation in my novel, in which the current volatility between China and the US has reached fever pitch. My travels through Japan and the Ryukyu Islands were a long-held dream. I had intended to go ten years prior, but had to cancel my trip due to an alarming online stalking incident. The novel I was writing morphed from Japan-set odyssey to a stalking story, and thence to the bin. When I went back, the situation in Okinawa a decade on was only getting worse, despite assurances in 1995 – when a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by three US servicemen – that the island would be alleviated of some of its burden. I wanted to explore a possible future based on its present trajectory and a novel seemed like the most intimate and creative way of doing this. I hoped that because I am neither American nor Okinawan nor Japanese, I could show a broader canvas – and thereby direct to more authentic interior voices.
The ethicality of flying has been much on my mind and it’s a theme both our novels share. In Dreamtime aviation (and other travel) is banned not to save the planet, but as a nationalistic bid to save rich people’s land from climate migrants. The end of flying in fact allows environmental destruction to take place with impunity – if you’re not physically in a place to see it, you have to rely on Virrea, the dodgy virtual reality company that’s replaced Apple, and therefore the big corporations (including the Pentagon) can get away with whatever they please.
It’s amazing to think how little time humans have been able to fly, in the grand scheme of things – and so much has happened in that short space, not least two world wars and the nuclear bomb. But easy connection with other humans, our friends and family around the globe, is something very hard to give up.
In My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, Cara refuses to fly to see her sister’s kids, of which there are many, something she views as intensely selfish. What are your own feelings about flying? Is local living an inevitable answer? Your novel is not didactic but raises many possibilities for being greener on a personal level. I think it’s interesting that though you’re exploring thoughtless vice, when Cara and her friend Renée get high, they actually start to talk creatively and expansively about solutions, an ideal future. What role do you think writers of fiction have to play in the climate crisis? And with that in mind, who would you particularly recommend?
AEC: Yes, the lack of air travel in Dreamtime was such a creative element because it means that environmental destruction, which would have been witnessed by people from around the world, was no longer documented and shared in the same way, and this of course gives free rein to corporations to blur reality as they see fit—something that is already happening now. Dreamtime paints such a vivid picture of how compounding inequities can morph and exact a cascade of impacts that no one can ever quite predict until those impacts are upon us.
I read recently about how the Borough of Islington in London will be harnessing excess heat generated by the Tube to keep homes warm in the area. In the article, a scientist was interviewed and he said something like, we need to work with nature and the Earth's systems to optimize the use of heat. And really, this is what I find most exciting. I love seeing humans apply their intelligence and ingenuity to solve seemingly insurmountable problems.
I have a similar opinion about flying. I think airplanes, taking flight, being able to travel the world with relative ease and convenience are some of humanity's most remarkable feats of engineering—however, this advancement, like so many others, comes at the expense of our global climate and therefore, the integrity of our very civilization. So is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?
I’d like to see humans create systems and technology that ensure the non-violent evolution of humanity—that is, the development of our consciousness and conscientiousness and our experience on this planet without harming ourselves, animals, and the ecosystems we all depend upon for survival. It’s pretty much as simple as that, for me!
This era of ‘progress at any cost’ is proving to be disastrous, but that doesn't mean we have to muzzle human ingenuity—quite the contrary. This is a massive opportunity for humans to say, ‘let's see what we can design, build, achieve, accomplish without inflicting harm on others. Let’s really test our imaginations to see how harmoniously we can design these systems—and what elaborate goodness and abundant peace might come of it.’
I think that scene you mentioned in My Days of Dark Green Euphoria where Cara and Renée are imagining future possibilities for how humans might exist on this planet is probably my favorite in the whole book. I love the idea of reframing what appear to be colossal limitations or constraints as catalysts for wild creativity.
Because something we haven't seen on a large, global scale yet, is what humanity could contribute positively to the planet, and in turn, what we can experience together without these horrific negative externalities—one of which is this increased sense of anxiety and dread, sadness and fear associated with this traumatic diminishment of our living world—‘solastalgia,’ as Glenn Albrecht calls it.
As far as living (and buying and producing and existing) on only regional or local scales is concerned, I don’t think that has to be an inevitability, or the only inevitability, I guess. I love the idea of living locally, lowering our carbon footprint by drawing down on our consumption; and I am equally intrigued with the idea of how humanity can advance technologically and as a global civilization but within the constraints of non-violence and all without compromising our global climate. If we apply our intelligence to these challenges with the assumption that we need to work with nature, with each other, and with animals and plants, I think paradise becomes the reality instead of the dream.
In this sense, I hope that writers of fiction continue to find creative ways to show not only the reality of what’s happening now, but the possibility of what we could create in the future if we start to see limitations as inspiration. Right now in fiction I’m enthralled with how the history of the most extreme extent of commodification—literal enslavement of human beings by other human beings—can be interpreted as the genesis of the climate crisis. About a year ago I attended a virtual lecture by Vanderbilt University Professor Teresa Goddu who has written about the “Plantionocene,” or, how white supremacy ‘inaugurated’ the climate crisis. When I started thinking about how the enslavement of people (in the States especially) could have set the scene for the rampant injustices and disparities, especially climate disparities, we are witnessing today, it was like I could feel my brain rewiring. To that end, I hope to dive into some of the books that Dr. Goddu recommended, books that she says exemplify the relationship between historical chattel slavery and the current climate crisis. Those books are The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This idea of writers being a product of their time, whether they can tell or not, is interesting to me, and raises questions about the role of fiction (and writers of fiction).
I've heard a handful of critics saying how every work of fiction that is published today and beyond, in some way, whether overtly or not, will address or explore the climate crisis. Might it be inevitable that all art created in this current era, including fiction, will somehow explore the climate crisis, even if not overtly? And, depending on your answer, what do you think about the idea that fiction should address the climate crisis and its impact on people, animals, and planet?
VW: This is really the crux of it, isn’t it: ‘Is it really an advancement or accomplishment if the things we create undermine our ability to survive as a species?’ Thank you for putting into words the conflict at the heart of mankind’s struggle with self-destruction. Everything, anything, can be justified as progress. And seemingly unequivocal positives, such as the invention of antibiotics, must now be viewed with a longer lens.
As for current art addressing the current catastrophe, hm … maybe obliquely – plenty of fiction captures the rolling state of panic we live in, the sense of dread we inhabit as a result of the climate crisis. But do we know it’s because of that? We humans, as I cheerily mentioned, already have the knowledge of our own deaths to deal with; as Jenny Offill puts it in Weather, ‘I know that one day I will have to let go of everything and everyone I love.’ We live with this innate fear on a personal level and in response we have developed a whole raft of ways to deflect, distract and demur. We need them to survive such a life: it ends in total annihilation. When the issue is on a larger scale, as is the case with the prospect of global apocalypse, we can only deploy bigger defensive guns. So no, I think the scale of climate change in reality is not reflected in the scale of fiction that attempts to deal with it, and particularly not in literary fiction, as Amitav Ghosh argued in The Great Derangement.
Ghosh wrote in 2016: ‘It’s our job, as writers, to make imaginative leaps on behalf of those who don’t, can’t or won’t’. Many writers felt this call to action, including me. I had already written a literary novel, Mother of Darkness, which touched on climate change anxiety, and in Dreamtime I wanted to go further. However, I found that as soon as some publicity highlighted this issue as central, booksellers started to reclassify the book as eco-fiction or cli-fi. Why must literariness be sacrificed? This crisis is the backdrop to – and imminent end of – all life on earth. How can it not have a place in literary fiction, and all contemporary fiction? It worries me that the writers and readers of eco-fiction may be building an echo chamber out of books. Segregating such novels matters, since classification determines how they are marketed, who they can reach and the weight attached to them.
I hope My Days of Dark Green Euphoria gets the wide recognition it deserves – it’s such an extraordinary and affecting novel – and wish you every success with it. It’s been great talking to you!
AEC: Likewise—I hope Dreamtime is a soaring success, as well; it’s spectacularly written and covers such urgent topics with profound sensitivity and insight. The world needs your creativity and imagination! Thank you for the fantastic conversation.
A.E. Copenhaver is a writer, editor, science communicator, and climate interpreter. She’s worked in the environmental and nonprofit sectors for nearly a decade. She has ghostwritten book chapters about cities plagued by factory farming, air pollution, and automobile traffic, and she has written about migrating white sharks, threatened sea otters, and depleted Pacific bluefin tuna.
Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who has lived and worked on four continents. Her debut novel Mother of Darkness was published by Quartet in 2017 and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The London Magazine, Review 31 and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others.
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