Writing about politics for kids - how much can they understand?

by Tom Huddleston, plus Fiona Barker discusses new picture book Setsuko: Song of the Sea

All art is political - even children’s books. Especially children’s books.

Fairy tales cover everything from social satire (The Emperor’s New Clothes) to the politics of adolescence (Little Red Riding Hood). The Gruffalo explores our mistrust of the other. Burglar Bill evinces sympathy for the criminal underclass. And as readers get older, the parallels become even more direct: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials mounts an angry critique of the Catholic church; Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books remorselessly lampoon class hierarchies; while my own FloodWorld trilogy explores inequality, exploitation and of course climate change in the guise of a fast-paced action adventure.

Like Pullman, Reeve and countless other authors before us, I’ve never felt the need to tone any of these themes down simply because the stories are aimed at younger readers. In fact, the opposite might be true: issues like climate change, inequality and oppression are part of the world around us, they’re not going away any time soon, however much we’d like them to. It’s our duty (and our privilege) as authors to bring them out into the light and get kids thinking about them - not as horrors to be feared, but as problems to be faced, understood and, if possible, overcome.

In FloodWorld, my young heroes Kara and Joe have grown up in the waterlogged slums of future London, doing whatever they can to get by - working dangerous and illegal jobs, existing on the margins of society. They’re exploited by those with more power, forced to fend for themselves in a tough, unfair society. But they’re not downtrodden: they’re brave, resourceful and persistent, they refuse to let the world beat them. And ultimately, through their struggles and their activism they’re able to help bring about a better world not just for themselves, but for everyone around them.

And of course there’s plenty of action and intrigue to move the story forward. For me, this is absolutely key: the story can never be allowed to let up, sweeping the characters and the reader along so rapidly that the serious stuff never starts feeling like a chore. So while my post-climate-change future may be tough and unforgiving, it’s always exciting too - there’s peril around every corner, this is a world that readers will hopefully want to keep exploring.

There are some who’d argue that taking this kind of blockbuster approach to serious issues serves to undermine the gravity of the problem - that I run the risk of making this tide-ravaged future seem like a prospect to be excited about, rather than one to be dreaded. And it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, it’s not a question to be taken lightly. But my response would be: what’s the alternative? To write a dry, doom-laden treatise on the perils of ecological disaster and widespread inequality that no child would ever want to read? Or to write a goofy, empty-headed adventure story with no deeper intention than blowing stuff up? For me, it’s about striking a balance, telling a rip-roaring story without ever letting the issues slip out of sight. I’m sure I haven’t always been successful - but that’s for the reader to decide.

Of course, I’m defining politics in quite loose terms here - social politics, climate politics, class politics. When it comes to governmental politics - the sort of thing the average young reader might recognise as ‘politics’, with grey-faced men and women in formal dress arguing about tax policy, we’re in slightly different territory. Personally, I probably wouldn’t attempt to write a children’s book about the day-to-day goings on in Westminster or the behind-the-scenes machinations at the East Byfleet by-election. But that doesn’t for a moment mean that another author couldn’t write either of those stories, and make them entertaining, approachable and fun.

There’s nothing inherent about politics that kids can’t get to grips with, provided they’re offered relatable characters in intriguing situations, and kept entertained. With any luck, they’ll gain a wider, more empathetic perspective on the world they live in, and a deeper understanding of the issues facing it.

FloodWorld and its sequel DustRoad are available now from Nosy Crow Books. The third and final book in the trilogy is set to follow later in 2021.

Tom Huddleston is a writer, musician and film journalist best known for his FLOODWORLD series of futuristic, climate-themed adventure stories. He currently lives in London. Tom is the author of several books for children including instalments in the STAR WARS: ADVENTURES IN WILD SPACE and WARHAMMER ADVENTURES series. Published in 2019 by Nosy Crow Books, his novel FLOODWORLD combines thrilling action with themes of ecological disaster and social inequality, and was followed in 2020 by a powerful sequel, DUSTROAD.

New Release

Mary Woodbury interviews Fiona Barker about her new picture book Setsuko and the Song of the Sea, out now.

I run Dragonfly.eco, an exploration of world eco-fiction, which includes a database of hundreds of novels about humanity's impact on our natural world, including the omnipresent climate disruption. Being a mother and aunt, I have often wondered how climate change will affect the next generations. It's an interest that informs my writing and reading, and life's work. My love for the great outdoors began with childhood, when my parents were forever showing us the world beyond walls, whether it was climbing the Appalachian hills in Eastern Kentucky, whenever we visited my mammaw and pappaw, or horseback riding in the desert when we visited relatives in Arizona. Dad used to take us four kids white-water rafting on the Wolf River when we got a little older, and when we moved to the Chicago area, that meant hiking the nearby woods and skiing every winter. I'm glad for this upbringing and still recall how I would constantly off lights and unused electricity to save energy when I was a teenager, when my activist self burgeoned as I knew we had to protect the planet around us.

When I was in college I wrote a story about a grade-school aged girl whose family moved from Chicago to northern Wisconsin. The girl had a hard time at first, because it was challenging to become accepted in her new community. She began noting the beautiful forest and creeks around her and imagined how they would have been in the old days. Using resources found around the property surrounding her new house, she built a wigwam and learned about the natural wilds of her area. I eventually gave the story to the kids in our family, and most recently a great-niece read it and loved it.

Later, after I began Dragonfly.eco, I was struck by something I read in Edan Lepucki's short story "There's No Place Like Home." I talked with Edan back then, and we discussed how youth were in a stuck generation. By then, so many real-life and literary heroes of the "youngest generations" had rocked the world, including Vanessa Nakate, Greta Thunberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Bana Alabed, and Emma Gonzales. I thought it only fitting to add a new spotlight feature at Dragonfly, called Turning the Tide: The Youngest Generation, where each month I spotlight an article, review, or book geared toward children, teens, or young adult audiences.

Earlier this year I also published the novella Bird Song (pen: Clara Hume) a story about a young woman named Thelsie, from Chicago, who wakes up on a mysterious island and tries to figure out her surroundings. She meets two Greek sirens and a shipwrecked sailor as well as her mother, who had died in the previous year. Part eco-horror, part new myth, part romance, this novella is also a parable for climate change, and similar to my real-life experience, looks at ecological destruction resulting in climate change as something that started long ago.

My interests in how younger people are dealing with ecological destruction that they had no part in is one of the reasons I wanted to interview Fiona Barker about her beautifully illustrated Setsuko and the Song of the Sea. Being a big fan of Moana, I was thrilled to discover Setsuko--only Moana was about a young woman fighting against a curse from a demigod, while Setsuko is about a young girl who, like Moana, is drawn to the sea but learns about advocacy against ocean destruction. She meets a whale whose stories and songs inspire her to think about the beauty of the ocean and the threats that marine life faces. While the whale's song appeals to her emotionally, she also discovers the amount of plastic waste found in the ocean, which inspires action.

I got the wonderful opportunity to chat with Fiona about her new children's story.

Mary: Can you explain the inspiration behind Setsuko and the Song of the Sea?

Fiona: I think I've always been reasonably green. As a child 40 years ago I used to tour our village with my dad and a wheelbarrow collecting newspapers to recycle. But what really changed things was doing the Marine Conservation Society #PlasticFreeJuly where the challenge was to cut out a source of single use plastic everyday for a month. I learned a huge amount and have completely changed our whole family's shopping habits and blog about my efforts to reduce our waste for Less Plastic UK. It got me thinking about consumption and waste in general.

Then I met Howard Gray, who illustrated my picture book Danny and the Dream Dog (Tiny Tree Children's Books). I discovered he was a marine biologist, and I knew I had to write a story about the sea for him to illustrate because he's a genius at drawing the sea. I was inspired to feature Setsuko because I had seen a documentary about the amazing Ama, female free divers. They're incredible women who dive for shellfish without diving equipment, but their way of life is under threat. I knew I had to include an Ama in my story, and Setsuko was born. I'm absolutely thrilled that a percentage of the profit from sales of the book will go towards supporting the work of the Marine Conservation Society.

Mary: What kinds of climate change themes does your newest book have?

Fiona: My story is about respecting the world we live in. Specifically it's about ocean plastic but also bigger themes of consumption and waste.

Mary: You have written other ecologically aware picture books for children. What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

Fiona: I was thrilled at the end of 2020 to win the illustrated book for children category of the Green Stories Writing competition with my story "The Doo-Da Hoo-Ha," which addresses reducing waste at source by consuming less. I also self-published a picture book in 2016 called "Amelie and the Great Outdoors," which encourages readers to get outside and engage with the natural world.

Mary: You're a mother, too. What worries you about our future when it comes to our children?

Everything. In the west especially, we are living outside our means, consuming far more than our planet can sustainably provide. On a global level, climate change and global warming are the biggest threats of course. Just today on the radio I heard that European climate scientists have announced that 2020 equalled 2016 as the warmest year on record. The acceleration of thawing in permafrost in the Arctic Circle is a huge time bomb. Locally, I am obsessed with litter and run 3-4 times a week with a litter picker and bag, collecting it. Our children deserve to walk streets that are clean without having to step over cans, plastic bottles and, at the moment, discarded facemasks and gloves. 

Mary: How do you think fiction, and, in your case, illustrated fiction, can help?

Fiona: Obviously, it's about informing and educating children and parents about the issues but also, importantly, about solutions that they have direct control over.

Fiona Barker is the author of picture books Setsuko and the Song of the Sea and Danny and the Dream Dog, illustrated by artist and marine biologist Howard Gray. When not writing picture books, she can be found out plogging and occasionally blogging about litter and living a life less plastic.

Mary Woodbury (pen name Clara Hume) graduated with BAs in English and anthropology at Purdue University. She grew up in the United States, where her parents introduced her at an early age to hiking, climbing mountains, horseback riding, canoeing, white-water rafting, and camping—filling her with a deep respect for the wilderness. She now lives in Nova Scotia with her partner and two cats. As a curator at Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores world eco-fiction, she has interviewed several award-winning authors and built a database of over 800 novels. She also founded Moon Willow Press in 2009 and its newest imprint Dragonfly Publishing.

Climate Change in the News

UK students sue government over human rights impact of climate crisis [Guardian]

League member Hannah Gold in conversation with Lyndsey Croal [YouTube]

Children's Fiction and the Climate Crisis - Sarah Odedina interviews Ele Fountain, Hannah Gold and Piers Torday with Tales on Moon Lane

Area of forests the size of France has regrown worldwide since 2000 [Sky News]

‘Love our bogs’: UK should harness all its landscapes in fight for climate [Guardian]

Farmers too busy surviving to act on climate change