How do authors translate the dangers of our world into books for children, in a way that is accessible, engaging, and mobilizing? This was the driving question that brought together three speakers for a PEN World Voices panel called “Children’s Literature: Braving Our Endangered World,” held on May 4 at the Public Theatre in Manhattan.

The panelists were Loree Burns, Eliot Schrefer, and Padma Venkatraman, with Andrew Revkin, a New York Times reporter and author of environmentally focused nonfiction for adults, moderating. A round of introductions showed how the authors took very different paths on their way to writing science- and ecology-themed books for children.

After earning her PhD in biochemistry, Burns discovered that writing gave her access to a “broader scope” of topics than her earlier lab research allowed for. She began writing children’s books out of a desire to make science more accessible and relatable to young people, who, she finds, think of scientists as Albert Einstein types rather than people who might look more like them – a misperception she hopes to change through her books.

Venkatraman worked as an oceanographer before turning to fiction writing. She explained that “as a woman growing up in India, it was important to me to have financial independence.” This need for autonomy coupled with her love of science initially led to her first career path. After spending time with the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands, Venkatraman felt her desire to write fiction reawakening.

Schrefer’s experience was quite different. Though he started out studying evolutionary biology, his love of reading and storytelling took him in a more literary direction. And then he bought an awesome pair of pants. No, that’s not a misprint: Schrefer explained that when he researched the brand name of said pants – Bonobo – he learned about the bonobo apes, a species whose peaceful society might serve as a template for a more civil human civilization. While initially his research involved watching clips of bonobos making spaghetti on YouTube, it eventually brought him to the Congo and provided him an avenue through which to marry his two loves – literature and science.

Writing Topical Children’s Books with Heart

Global warming, natural disasters, ethnic conflicts, endangered species, and the oceans awash with trash.... These aren’t uplifting topics to share with children. The authors each elaborated on the challenges inherent in writing about weighty global problems for a young audience.

Schrefer’s YA novel Endangered (2012) is about a half American/half Congolese girl who rescues a young ape while visiting her mother’s bonobo sanctuary in war-torn Congo. While the story is fiction, he draws from his own extensive research into the bonobos, which evolved separately from chimpanzees due to the formation of the Congo River millions of years ago. With abundant resources available to the bonobos, their social order developed quite differently than that of chimps. While chimpanzees display frequent aggressive tendencies, even splitting into “tribes” and going to “war,” bonobos are matriarchal and peaceful, resolving conflict through mating and grooming practices (in his novel, Schrefer gracefully addresses the more intimate details of bonobos’ sexuality).

Schrefer began to see the difference between chimps and bonobos as “an allegory about the allocation of resources,” and hoped to offer insight into the human potential for both kindness and cruelty. He decided that the story would be best served by a female protagonist because a female human would be more likely to survive among the matriarchal bonobos. Another decision he made was to make his main character biracial, because he felt he could empathize more fully with her if – like Schrefer – she was an outsider both on a cultural level and as a human living among bonobos.

Schrefer described how, when writing books that are educational and may carry a message, it’s crucial that “the seams aren’t showing,” and that readers are primarily moved by the story, characters, and action. It’s just that they may also learn something significant along the way.

Burns reflected on researching and writing one of her first books in the Scientists in the Field series, Tracking Trash: Flotsum, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (2007). In 1990, 21 cargo containers were swept off a ship traveling from Korea to the United States. Oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer and his team of scientists began tracking where shoes and other items washed ashore, using the data to construct a computer monitoring program about ocean currents.

While learning about Ebbesmeyer’s work, Burns said, she arrived at a painful crossroads. “I’d set out to write a story about a ‘quirky’ scientist,” she explained. “And then I realized, there’s a hell of a lot of trash in the ocean. I was so horrified.” In fact, she doubted that this was a story that she could tell to kids. But after her editor sent her back into the field, she discovered the importance – and the art – of “bringing [children] accurate information where they are.” She learned that teaching readers about potentially somber subjects becomes much easier if kids are empowered to take action. Ebbersmeyer’s story was an example of how someone “used an accident to create something really useful for humanity.” Where there are dismal statistics about depleting natural resources and other environmental calamities, Burns said, there are also stories of citizen scientists pioneering projects and creating tangible change – and kids can be a big part of that.

Though Venkatraman is a disciple of the scientific method, she admits that there was something “completely unscientific” about how she came to write Island’s End (2011), a YA novel about an Andaman Island girl who has been selected to become the spiritual leader of her indigenous community. The novel unflinchingly addresses gender, ethnic, and cultural tensions, while exploring the aftermath of a tsunami. Although generally “exceedingly cautious” when writing as an outsider from an insider point of view, Venkatraman said she was extraordinarily moved by her illuminating encounters with the people of the Andaman Islands – so much so that she listened when a disembodied voice from the island guided her through the process of writing the book. For Venkatraman, science and the sometimes ineffable quality of emotional experience are not mutually exclusive: “That emotion is the way you learn.”

Keeping the Faith

Questions from the audience yielded a discussion about whether children carry the lessons they learn about environmental conservation into adulthood, and about combating what sometimes appears to be a pervasive societal distrust of science.

Schrefer mentioned a recent picture book that he believes effectively illustrates how a childhood curiosity about nature can blossom into a lifelong passion for science. Patrick McDonell’s Me… Jane (2011) imagines how Jane Goodall’s early fascination with animals (and a love for a stuffed chimp) led to her career as a primatologist. He described it as a book that effectively “models what someone else has done” rather than telling readers what they should do.

Venkatraman commented that children’s books can have an enduring influence on readers – particularly books with “well-rounded, passionate characters” that don’t preach or moralize, but instead “leave readers with questions.” Too often, Venkatraman believes, science is treated as an established body of facts to be memorized, rather than as a process of investigation and discovery.

Recalling the time when she was researching declining bee populations for The Hive Detectives: Chronicles of a Honey Bee Catastrophe, Burns said her editor came to her with a concern. What would happen if there weren’t any answers by the time the book came out? The truth was, there probably wouldn’t be. Burns’s research has taught her that science rarely offers tidy solutions. But her books represent her efforts to “come at science from a place of joy” regardless of outcomes.

Expressing a belief that children are natural scientists who are filled with questions about the world around them, Burns said that she frequently struggles with the possibility that kids might lose their curiosity and connection to nature as they get older. After all, “kids aren’t the ones making these choices.” Her part in the process is to “plant that seed and hope that they remember and are empowered as they get older. I just have to take that leap of faith.”