As she did in some of her earlier novels, including her 2012 Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan, starring a gorilla held captive in a shopping-mall cage, Katherine Applegate laces fantasy with the all-too-real in Willodeen, the story of a fervent young eco-activist, released earlier this month by Feiwel and Friends. The publisher is launching the novel with a 750,000-copy announced market distribution and a virtual promotional campaign targeting schools called Go Green with Willodeen: How to Become an Eco-Activist in 3 Simple Steps, which provides educators with a game plan to jumpstart students’ environmental awareness and activism.

The words that 11-year-old Willodeen lives by (“The earth is old and we are not, and that is all you must remember”) capsulize her respect for the fragility of nature at a time when its forces seem to be bitterly angry. Lately her homeland of Perchance has been plagued by fires and mudslides, droughts and fevers, and the sudden cessation of the annual migration of winged creatures called hummingbears, a source of pride and tourist income for the residents. Willodeen is determined to discover why these beloved beings have disappeared and to do what she can to facilitate nature’s recovery.

Given Applegate’s extensive in-person and virtual school visits and correspondence with kids over the years, she is keenly aware of middle-grade readers’ concern about the repercussions of climate change—and how to address that and other hard-hitting issues in an accessible way. That’s where her adroit use of fantasy elements comes into play. “First of all, it’s fun for me as a writer, and I hope that translates into fun for the reader,” she said of drawing from the fantasy world. “When you’re dealing with complex, hard topics for young readers, bits of fantasy help underline that there is always magic—and hope—in the world. It’s the same way we use fairy tales to venture into dark places and emerge whole.”

Yet the idea for the heroine of her novel was, at least in part, grounded in the real world. Discussing her inspiration for Willodeen, Applegate noted that Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist, was “very much in my head” when she conceived of her character, but added, “I am in no way suggesting that Willodeen is Greta. I love Willodeen for her fierce honesty. Like Greta, she’s willing to speak uncomfortable truths to adults. She’s also a bit of an outsider, trying to make sense of the world and find her place in it. For her, nature provides both solace and answers. If kids come away from Willodeen with the epigraph from Greta Thunberg in mind—‘I have learned that you are never too small to make a difference’—that would be wonderful indeed.”

Going Green, One Step at a Time

To encourage readers to emulate Willodeen’s commitment to restoring and preserving the environment, Macmillan Children’s Publishing developed a concise course of eco-action with its Go Green with Willodeen initiative. A digital kit containing educator materials encourages kids to take advantage of the informational resources available to them, explore biodiversity in their own backyards, and to share what they’ve learned by sending postcards or posting on social media (using #GoGreenwithWillodeen). The kit includes a letter from Applegate, an educator discussion guide, a poster, and a set of postcards for students to share what they’ve learned about the environment with friends, family, or community members in a position to help create a more sustainable environment.

A handful of educators who plan on introducing their students to the campaign weighed in on the initiative. Joanna Pecor, third grade teacher at Orchard School in South Burlington, Vt., said, “As I read this heartwarming and inspiring book, I found myself becoming overwhelmed in the best possible way by the connections we could make to our curriculum and initiatives. The message that one small voice or person can affect change is imperative for children to hear and to believe. The way Katherine brings to light the issue of climate change and the interdependence between humans and the natural world is brilliant. My students immediately started to brainstorm ways that we can be stewards of the land and protect Mother Earth. I know they will feel empowered to think of even more ways to be activists in our community and beyond.”

Amber Webb, educator at the Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said, “Our students were completely drawn in by the imaginary animals. We focused on the quote from Pa, ‘Nature, Willodeen, knows more than we, and she probably always will.’ Students felt like nature knew what was best for itself just like we know what is best for us as individuals, and we would be better off working with nature instead of against it. Our kids thought we should start on a school level by writing to classrooms and administrators and hanging signs around campus about the importance of caring for the nature around us.”

According to Jenny Lussier, school library media specialist at Brewster Elementary School in Durham, Conn., “I think our learners are going to be very excited when I share the book with them. The cover illustration, with those big eyes, the tusks and of course, the hummingbear, is definitely going to catch their attention. This fall we are going to do an inquiry into plastic and the effect its pollution has on the environment, and I think Willodeen will be a wonderful way to get their thinking going.”

Applegate called the Go Green with Willodeen initiative “a wonderful starting place for teachers and kids. Children can take tiny actions that engender hope. It is so important for each of us to feel that we are doing something positive and making a difference. We’re leaving a mess to our children, but I think they’re up to the challenge. A story in the Guardian the other day underscored this point. Colleges are seeing a surge in Gen Z members who want to focus their careers on environmental change. What an encouraging sign!”

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate, illus. by Charles Santoso. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 078-1-250-14740-0