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When the Wild Calls: children's authors and eco-anxiety

The responsibilities of children’s writers and the rise in eco-anxiety in children. The benefits for young people of reading climate-fiction. An article written by children's book author Nicola Penfold, for Armadillo Magazine's Blog.

Nicola's latest book, When the Wild Calls has just been published by Little Tiger Books and you can find a copy in all good bookshops - watch the Armadillo Instagram page next week for a chance to win a copy too! Now its with thanks to Dannie Price and Little Tiger books that we bring you Nicola's article...

We’re living in a precarious age and young people know it. A report from The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)[i] shows 49% of UK participants aged 16-25 are very or extremely worried about climate change. Globally, 75% young respondents to the same survey considered the future to be ‘frightening’, and 55.7% thought humanity was ‘doomed’. Almost half the participants said negative emotions impacted their daily lives.

As children’s writers, we write for so many reasons ~ to entertain, to inspire, to educate, to open up the world and induce empathy, to create a refuge in hard times. How do we write about the natural world however, in light of both the climate and biodiversity crisis, and the rising mental health issues young people face? We don’t want to fuel anxiety, but we don’t want to ignore the state of the world either. Especially because, as the RCPCH report also shows, inaction from governments around the world only adds to young people’s anxiety. Children and teenagers can feel powerless already. What hope can they have if the adults who wield the power fail to adequately address the most pressing issue of our time?

As children’s writers, I believe one of the most important things we can do is address what’s happening. We can give a voice to the natural world. Sometimes we can do this quite literally. One of my favourite books growing up was Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979), about a group of woodland protagonists (Fox, Badger, Toad, Kestrel, Weasel and many more) who work together to journey to a nature reserve, after bulldozers move into their beloved woodland. I lived every bit of that journey with those characters, and felt all the urgency and emotion of their plight. For a more modern anthropomorphic quest to save the world, try Piers Torday’s charming and wonderful The Wild Before (even the physical book has green credentials, printed with vegetable inks and contained in an uncoated biodegradable cover).

It’s not all about making animals talk. Stories can put young people in a position where they can make a difference. In Hannah Gold’s The Last Bear, April Wood befriends and saves the last polar bear on Bear Island. There’s a line where April says, ‘But imagine if every single person on the planet did just one thing?’ What a take-home message for young readers. It turns despair into action, sadness to hope.

Hope is so important. Although I’m getting a reputation for dystopian visions of the future, I’m not writing to raise awareness about climate change. I’m confident young people know the problems already. What I do intentionally try and raise awareness of are nature-based solutions to climate change. Ways of reeling back some of the damage we’ve inflicted. In Where the World Turns Wild, Juniper and Bear escape from a grey imprisoned city into a rewilded world, studded with beautiful encounters (birdsong! trees! a lynx!). It’s a world I go back to in the sequel, When the Wild Calls, except this time the rewild is reaching the city too. In Between Sea and Sky, I explore sustainable ocean farming ~ how seaweed absorbs CO2 and helps deacidify the sea; how oysters filter seawater, and make a great food source to boot! In Beyond the Frozen Horizon, my ecological ghost story set in the Arctic, I write about whales and their amazing capacity to counter climate change.

All my stories have taken me deep into the natural world. Countless studies have shown the benefits of exposure to nature. It nurtures us – makes us happier, healthier, calmer. It even makes us kinder. Not everyone has ready access to green (or blue) spaces, but books can take us to them – from our classrooms, bedrooms, hospitals, wherever you might find a child. Books can be portable nature tables, and portals into a much wilder world. Whilst not ostensibly climate fiction, books like Nizrana Farook’s, set in lush Serendib, a fictional Sri Lanka, connect children with elephants, whales, leopards and bears. These are animals and certainly a landscape most readers will never encounter in real life, but Farook’s stories bring them up close and personal. Just as Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston introduce readers to the Greenland shark who can live an incredible four hundred years or more (that fact still blows my mind!) in Julia and the Shark. And Katherine Rundell has children running with wolves through icy Russian forests in The Wolf Wilder. The study might yet to be done, but I’m pretty sure these things are good for our brains, in the same way that an actual wilderness experience would be. And books are a lot safer and more sustainable!

Books can make the wild world a child’s own. They can make them fall in love with it. And yes, this is encouraging for all our futures, to give the change-makers of tomorrow this relationship with the natural world, but I think for most writers, it’s the here and now that matters. It’s the capacity of stories like this to excite, engage and give that refuge and hope, even when eco-anxiety rears its head.  

[i] Preserving the world for future generations: Children and young people’s perspectives on how to tackle climate change. November 2023, RCPCH.


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