Lending colour to a grey January day, a green Christmas tree stood on the side of the road, ignored, by all, but one. Young Brian noticed the tree, “why nobody was smiling at her anymore” he wondered.
Bethany Welby’s beautifully illustrated The After Christmas Tree, a 2020 picture book, follows young Brian as he takes care of the tree, nurtures it and then sees it attract all the birdlife a tree can. The allegory is strikingly clear: children notice, and are acting to protect the earth. Welby, an award-winning UK-based picture book illustrator, is then one of a growing corpus of children’s book writers-illustrators, combining eco-action with a story. Some Western publishers say Greta lit the spark.
When Greta Thunberg boycotted school one Friday in 2018, her protest marked the resolve of children and youngsters to act. It also highlighted their frustration at the lack of climate action being taken to preserve a planet that is theirs to inherit. Riding on this ‘Greta Thunberg Effect’, young people in many parts of the world were joining a conversation they were often not invited to. People sat up and took notice. Publishers were among them, and soon, children’s literature on climate flooded the shelves.
2019 data from Nielsen Book Research, shared with The Guardian, revealed that the number of new children’s books looking at the climate crisis, global warming and the world of nature has more than doubled in the span of a year, since 2018, as have their sales. Is it also boosting the reading habit among the young?
It also poses an interesting paradox. On the one hand, today’s children and youth are seen as the generations gradually giving up on reading. According to a 2014 study conducted by Common Sense Media, a US-based children’s media non-profit, 22% of thirteen-year-olds and 27% of seventeen-year-olds said they never or hardly read for pleasure, a figure that has tripled from 8% and 9% respectively, since 1984. On the other hand, the rise of children’s climate literature is suggesting that the young are interested in the issue in the book. With figures like Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, a 22-year-old activist from Kampala, Uganda’s capital, coming increasingly into the fore of the climate movement, there is a natural rise in the number of youth leaders that youngsters can look up to all over the world. This is part of a wider shift towards giving young people a voice in the climate movement.
In an editorial in the New York Times this August, with a young activist each from Sweden, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Kenya, Thunberg introduced UNICEF’s first-ever Climate Risk Index, framing the climate crisis as a child rights issue. Worried about their futures, young climate campaigners present their activism as not just an issue that concerns the environment but tackling climate change as a matter of global justice.
In 2014, children – four to fourteen-year-olds – of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement stormed the Ministry of Education’s offices in Brasilia, demanding that the government keep rural schools in the countryside open. Their curriculum included rural sustainable development and the pedagogy revolved around the environment. “Closing schools is a crime”, they insisted. The Landless Workers Movement, immensely successful as a public movement figures in global case studies on social justice and environmental education. It is powerful that this zeal has been inherited by the children of the workers as well.
However, Jedediah Britton-Purdy in, ‘The Concession to Climate Change I Will Not Make’, asks as to where one draws the line between having a child wonder at the world and having a fear for their future. Introducing the concept of climate change, an unpleasant future, at a young age, can come with its own pitfalls. Despair can creep into reading, which is, in essence, an act of leisure and learning. According to a survey, the largest of its kind asked 10,000 young people in 10 countries how they felt about climate change and government responses to it. Results published in September 2021, in Nature magazine, found that 60% of 16 to 25-year-olds feel ‘extremely worried’ about climate change. Patrick Barkham, however, argues in The Guardian that it is indeed possible to capture the imagination of children, and underscore the themes of climate change and environmentalism, without it necessarily coming across as terrifying or patronizing: he speaks of how climate literature fascinates his own daughters, who immerse themselves into the story and emerge knowing Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai, and the Chipko Movement.
Respecting nature in children’s literature in world languages, though, is not a 21st Century phenomenon. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (1971) is seen as one of the early English language children’s books adopting ideals of environmentalism. K. Norel’s 1977 Dutch book ‘Ik Worstel en Kom Boven’ (I Struggle and I Resurface), shows how moral education centered around the environment was imparted to children: it was written by Norel to bring to light the struggles of the 1953 floods in the Netherlands.
Clare Echterling, a researcher of environmental literary studies at the University of Kansas, suggests that much of this literature is explicit about its intention, educating children on the environment. She also cites Clare Bradford and Geraldine Massey, who argue that such texts socialize children into becoming ‘ecocitizens’ driven by the ideals of sustainability locally, and environmental responsibility, globally. As the case study from Brazil proves, not only does environmental writing in school curricula and storytelling have an older, non-Western, and multi-social class vintage, in India too, environmental education in various forms became mandatory by the mid-90s. The 1990s showed early signs of a boom in children’s eco- storytelling, one that seems to have exploded post-2018, in some parts of the world.
It is a growing nook in Indian writing in many languages including English. From Orijit Sen’s first Indian graphic novel in 1994 on a people’s struggle over a river to be dammed to children’s libraries including eco-warriors and action. Be it Pratham’s eco-stories as stand-alone books or their Story Weaver programme, an open-source treasure house of animal, science and nature stories in several Indian and foreign languages. Kid-lit sites now host reviews for books such as the Indian 2020 award-winning book on climate change for the young adult, Bijal Vachharajani’s A Cloud Called Bhura. Sandeep Virmani’s A New Home for Ajiri, and M. Yuvan’s Saahi’s Quest, published within the last year by Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group that has also put out Secrets of the Jungle in Hindi.
From CoP1 in 1995 to CoP26 in 2021, children’s climate literature is now one long, growing list.
Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies.
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