This story was originally published by Mother Jones and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
When author Katherine Applegate was touring schools for her book wishing tree — a novel about prejudice for tweens told through the perspective of an oak tree — students kept wanting to talk about the climate crisis. They were stressed about whether the polar bears were going to die, panicked about the world they are inheriting. Their questions inspired Applegate, but she was intimidated: her previous books have dealt with heavy topics like animal cruelty and poverty. Climate collapse, though? It’s a challenge.
But it is a problem that children face. A 2021 global survey of 10,000 young people published in the Lancet found that 59% were very or extremely concerned about climate change and 75% felt the future was scary. The publishing industry has embraced the mood: according to Nielsen’s Publishing Market Research, sales of environmentally-related children’s books grew 69% between 2019 and 2021. It’s not just about teas with animals or Truffula. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, these books capture children’s anger and despair and are packed with calls to action.
Take that of Sita Brahmachari Where the river runs gold, a 2019 mid-level novel set in a dystopian future where bees have died and children must work to pollinate crops. Or Lily Williams’ picture book series on extinction, If the animals disappearedlaunched in 2017. We are water protectorsa 2020 picture book by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade and inspired by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, was a bestseller.
Applegate – who jokes that his “default setting is outright pessimism” – addressed these emotions in his latest book, Willodeen. Aimed at children aged 8 to 12, it takes place in the village of Perchance, with fantastic animals such as flying hummingbirds and stinking howlers. Perhaps it is also plagued by disasters and droughts. The main character’s parents are killed in a catastrophic forest fire. “It almost seemed like the Earth was mad at us,” Willodeen laments.
Mental health research has shown that focusing on unhappiness and gloom can paralyze people into inaction, while more inspirational, action-oriented work can be motivating. To that end, Applegate says she wasn’t worried about creating a world fraught with ecological crises – children are “so much more sophisticated, enlightened, aware and idealistic” than we realize, she says. Instead, this backdrop sets the stage for hopeful triumph, as Willodeen perseveres in defending the struggling species from indifferent politicians.
Another model comes from Coco’s fire, co-authored with the Climate Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, a think tank of practicing psychiatrists. When Coco, a young squirrel, learns of the disasters wrought by climate change, an inner fire symbolizing his anxiety begins to burn red. As she meets other activists and begins to clean up her own life, she cools down to a blue shimmer, which helps her “get more involved, not get upset.”
Jeremy Wortzel co-wrote the book with his fiancée, Lena Champlin, as an alternative to the images of a lonely polar bear or sinking cities children might encounter. The flame is inspired by the visual metaphors that psychologists use to introduce children to big concepts like death. “That traditional trope of scaring people in agencies, that we’re in trouble and you need to act now… doesn’t help everyone,” Wortzel tells me. “We tried to get to the root of what this anxiety actually does that drives people.”
Will a frightened squirrel or a magical village really quell children’s existential fear?
The climate crisis is what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject,” something so unmanageable it overwhelms minds. The mental health community has no official guidelines for dealing with climate anxiety, but studies have shown that individual actions help patients cope. Coco’s fire follows a six-step “Climate Talk” guide developed by the group of psychiatrists. First, they say, introduce climate change and find out what kids already know. This is followed by simple scientific explanations and a clear (unwatered) discussion of what it means, reasons to hope, and ways to get involved. The lecture ends with a reminder of the wonders of the natural world.
Sales of environmentally-related children’s books are up 69% between 2019 and 2021 — and they’re packed with calls to action. #ClimateAngst #ClimateGrief
Leslie Davenport, therapist and author of the book on children’s climate anxiety All the Feelings Under the sun, indicates that conversations are different depending on age. Children under the age of six, she says, tend to develop an innate sense of stewardship of nature. As kids become aware of climate news, Davenport focuses on small actions like recycling or driving less. Around the age of 10, she says, “desperation” sets in and the conversation needs to evolve. Stories of triumph in the face of realistic crises, she says, are therapeutic. “A purely apocalyptic story isn’t helpful, but a story where emotions are acknowledged and kids can find ways to navigate their feelings and get involved that can break through,” Davenport says.
Goade says that was the purpose of We are water protectors. The idea of indigenous peoples fighting an oil pipeline (represented by a black snake) seems overwhelming. But she and Lindstrom felt it was a perfect story to inspire in the face of the insurmountable. During virtual book talks, students eagerly asked what they could do to help water protectors.
“As children’s book authors, someone once said we were ‘hope peddlers,’” Goade says. “It can be a bit difficult when we feel underwater with the current state of things. But it’s also a really amazing thing.