In 2014, officials in Flint, Mich., switched the city’s water supply to the lead-contaminated Flint River, resulting in a public health crisis that wasn’t exposed until nearly a year later, through the efforts of ordinary citizens. We spoke with Candy J. Cooper and Marc Aronson, coauthors of Poisoned Water (Bloomsbury, May; ages 8–12), about conveying lessons in social justice and government accountability to young readers.
Why did it feel urgent to present the story, with its complex environmental and civic issues, to young people?
M.A.: I had followed the story and was extremely disturbed and alarmed. When I spoke at the Michigan Association for Media in Education conference in 2016, Booklist reviewer and middle-school librarian Lynn Rutan said to me, “We really need a book on Flint for young people.” I knew this was such a crime, but I also knew I wasn’t the person to do the on-the-ground reporting to make this the fresh story it deserved to be. So, I turned to Candy, who has deep roots as a journalist from Michigan.
All of us get the world through breaking news that’s presented as immensely important, and then it disappears. What a book can do is slow down that process.
C.J.C.: When Marc first reached out, it was an almost instant feeling of recognition. I knew that I would be able to dig into this story. The injustice aspect really struck me. As I started to do the work, I was compelled by Flint itself and the activism there, as well as the duality of the town: the rich mix of people and how they came together to right the wrong that was being done to them. And that truly is the takeaway: a real cross-section of people of various ages, races, and income groups came together, to speak out and make a change.
Can you walk us through your research and reporting process, and how you shaped the narrative?
C.J.C.: By the time we came to the story, a lot had been written, so I had the advantage of being able to read quite a bit of material. There was also recorded video of city council meetings. Then I started going to Flint and meeting people. At the point that I arrived, this mistrust had taken root. There was a lot to overcome in order to get people to open up to one more outsider. I got to know a group of kids, and I kept going back and getting their stories. That helped me fill in many of the gaps.
M.A.: I’ve done a lot of books that present complex subjects for younger people. You have a terrible and great challenge. You have to do two opposite things: engage the reader, who can choose to put the book down and play Minecraft, and give context, because that reader may not have the background. That’s a skill that’s learned over time, the balance of engagement and context. Because Candy has a reporting background, she has an immense ability to capture people’s words and create a narrative vividness. We worked together on how to find the melody and tune the words so it sang.
What do you hope readers will take away from your account?
M.A.: As we think about preserving the Earth and our relationship with it, we shouldn’t separate concerns of environmentalism and ecology from the power structures in our world. Those who are most often victimized are those with the least power.
C.J.C.: There are a lot of lessons, including this idea that you have to speak out. You cannot wait for people in authority, and perhaps you can’t always trust them. You have to be able to rely on your sense of the world and your experience, and voice your concerns in a way that connects with others.