Making environmental issues engaging

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Photograph by Alex O’Neale

Emma Shevah is the author of five books for children and her latest book, How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg, is a mystery adventure with a strong eco theme at its heart. Her blog describes the challenges of writing about environmental issues in a way that will make children want to read on.

When people ask me what my latest novel is about, I reply, ‘Err … it’s about climate change, and it’s full of facts about plastic, pollution and animals.’ No one looks particularly excited. Full of facts? Isn’t that called ‘nonfiction’? A novel about climate change? For children?

They have a point. Climate change isn’t an obvious page-turner; human plastic usage isn’t typically fun to read about, and ramming a book with bizarre animal facts runs the risk of it being didactic. But there is a way to make fiction about environmental issues engaging. We all live in this world, and as such, we are surrounded by issues – it seems ludicrous not to include some in stories for 8 –12-year-olds, especially considering the rise in climate change anxiety among young people. They are inheriting a world they feel has been wrecked by the generations preceding them, and they feel powerless because, in Ivy’s words, ‘what are you supposed to do when you’re only eleven, and you have no jeep or money or veterinary skills?’ My primary aim in writing it, apart from balancing the gravity of the topic by making it fun and funny, was to create a sense of hope. It’s easy to lose optimism when facing the facts of climate change, and if we do that and give up, it’s all over. It may be all over anyway, but that’s defeatist, and I wanted to avoid defeatism. Children need to feel they can do something, but they can’t do it alone because no one can do it alone.

Atlantic Ocean

Another way I tried to make the story engaging was to write a collective ode to nature. Animals are amazing. Trees are amazing. The ocean – don’t get me started on the ocean. The natural world blows my mind every single day. I wanted to share my astonishment and joy in a literary way and yell alongside them, ‘WOW! Look! Isn’t this INCREDIBLE!’

Children love animals, so including animal facts and weird creatures has to be a hit. The challenge is to create a story out of all of that. Having two first-person narrators helped enormously: Nathaniel is on the autism spectrum, and his love of facts means I could get them in without it coming through a third-person narrative voice. Ivy is unconventional and upbeat – her quirkiness balances well with Nathaniel’s seriousness – and his trying to understand her and his eccentric estranged mother adds to the humour. And including a creature so unknown to us in the UK and so special makes the story and their experience larger than life.

 At author events and at talks in schools, authors are always asked, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ or more specifically, ‘how did you come up with the idea for this book?’ My answer is that once you start polishing your writerly antennae, you see the potential for stories everywhere: in the news, in people’s anecdotes, and in the random oddness that life serves up with alarming regularity. I tend to add that I write about what bothers me. Fathers leaving their children bothers me, so I wrote Dream on Amber. Orphanages in Asia being full of girls who have no chance of an education or to fulfil their dreams bothers me, so I wrote Dara Palmer’s Major Drama. Families arguing and cousins being separated bothers me – I’ve experienced it myself – so I wrote What Lexie Did. I’ve also written an early reader for Bloomsbury called Hello Baby Mo about a school-aged boy with a newborn sibling because that’s a tricky one, too.

And for How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg, I tackled the biggest thing that bothers me. The planet I love, what we’re doing to it and what we need to do urgently to bring about positive change.

 This is a risk, of course: the story is the important thing in fiction for children, not the message – that’s secondary, even though it can be so tightly weaved at times, the two are virtually inseparable. And stories need to be enjoyable, entertaining and interesting. Children are much more discerning than adults: they’ll chuck a book aside if it’s boring, illogical or a narrator drones on too long. Adults will stay with it longer and fill in the gaps themselves if need be.

 I hope there’ll be many more works of fiction that feature environmental issues – it’s not easy to write them into a story but to me, it’s been the most satisfying literary journey of all. I’m proud of Ivy and Nathaniel and genuinely hope they will – in some small way – have an influence on the next generation, and by doing so, play their part in helping to save the world.

How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg by Emma Shevah out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

Read Sam Keeley’s review. Find out more at emmashevah.com