In this moment of climate disaster, when young people are more anxious and depressed about the future of the planet than ever before, stories about real people who’ve made a difference can offer hope and inspiration. PW spoke with authors and editors of forthcoming biographies whose subjects may be ordinary or exceptional, historical or contemporary, about the importance of narrative nonfiction, and biography in particular, to educate and empower.
Learning from the past
With the youngest book lovers in mind, Gibbs Smith is building on its Little Naturalist series of board books. As with the 2020 titles Ansel Adams and His Camera and Georgia O’Keeffe Loved the Desert, the March release Beatrix Potter Wrote Stories by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Seth Lucas, promotes engagement with the natural world through the arts, a developmentally appropriate approach to environmental stewardship.
Michelle Branson, trade managing editor at Gibbs Smith, says one aim for the series is to expand on the meaning of the word naturalist. “It’s not just the mountain climber or the bird watcher, but also the photographer, the painter, the writer,” she says. “Our books ask children to look and see what’s out there, value nature, appreciate the world, learn about it, question it, and understand that there’s all different kinds of ways to enjoy it.”
Other biographies, geared toward slightly older children, link environmentalism to women’s history. Secrets of the Sea by Evan Griffith, illustrated by Joanie Stone (Clarion, Mar., ages 6–9), depicts Jeanne Power, a 19th-century dressmaker turned marine scientist. The book emphasizes Power’s persistence in the face of sexism and misogyny in the world of science and includes information in the back matter on how readers, too, can involve themselves in caring for and conserving marine life and oceans. Lady Bird Johnson, That’s Who! by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by Ginnie Hsu (Holt, Mar., ages 5–9), focuses on Johnson’s environmentalist legacy as first lady of the U.S., addressing both civics and conservationism.
As part of Laurence King’s Words That Changed the World nonfiction series for ages seven and older, author Anna Brett and illustrator Nick Hayes collaborated on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Feb.). “Darwin’s ideas were just as exciting then as they are now,” Brett says of the naturalist, geologist, and biologist’s theory of evolution. “What he wrote about is still relevant today.”
Several contemporary biographies highlight young people of color and stories from the Global South. For Old Enough to Save the Planet (Magic Cat, Feb.), Loll Kirby chose the 12 teenage climate activists she profiles with an eye toward diversity. “When you look at communities around the world proportionately, it isn’t going to be the white Western people who are affected by climate change nearly as much as others,” she says. (See our q&a with Kirby, “Teen Titans.”)
Kim Tomsic was inspired to write the picture book The Elephants Come Home (Chronicle, May 18) after reading about her subjects, Lawrence Anthony and Françoise Malby, following Anthony’s death in 2012; the couple ran an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, work that Malby has continued.
“I wanted to be sure to get every detail accurate,” Tomsic says. “I reached out to [Malby], who generously replied to all my questions, reviewed the text, opened the doorway for me to speak with her staff, and provided photos for the book.”
Tomsic’s husband and his sister later traveled to the Thula-Thula sanctuary to interview Malby and gather additional photographic references for the book’s illustrator, Hadley Hooper. “I hope children fall in love with the elephants and become curious about the magic of these wondrous creatures,” Tomsic says. She also wants to convey the importance of preserving endangered species and their environments.
Like Tomsic, Susan Hughes took care to ensure accuracy and authenticity in Walking for Water (Kids Can, June), illustrated by Nicole Miles. Set in Malawi, the picture book examines the intersections between gender equity and water access through Victor, a composite character based on a real-life child, and his quest to bring clean water to his village.
Hughes, who is white and lives in Toronto, conducted extensive online research and relied on a Malawian journalist to help hone the text, and a Malawian sensitivity reader to vet the artwork. “The cultural attitudes, the visuals, all had to be researched,” she says. “It’s someone else’s story in so many respects. I wanted to make sure that it was going to be true and believable.”
Hannah Moushabeck, marketing manager at Quarto, emphasizes the need for children to hear positive stories by and about people of color and to understand the links between environmental justice and other social justice movements. She worked as a freelance editor on Planting Peace (Interlink, May), a picture book biography of Wangari Maathai, written by Gwendolyn Hooks and illustrated by Margaux Carpentier. Maathai fought for women’s rights and environmental justice in Kenya and in 2004 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—she was the first African woman to receive the honor—for her far-reaching efforts.
“There are people from non-Western countries, people who are not white, who have been involved in this work for a really long time, and we wanted to make sure they were celebrated equally,” Moushabeck says. “A lot of books separate social justice and the environment and view them as different issues. Social justice is an environmental issue and vice versa. Showing children that you can come to it through any path and any passion is important.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Below, more on environmental books for young readers.
Teen Titans: PW talks with Loll Kirby
In Old Enough to Save the Planet, British primary school teacher and author Loll Kirby profiles 12 contemporary teenage climate activists from around the world, focusing on lesser-known stories and marginalized voices.
No Planet B: PW talks with Naomi Klein
Journalist and activist Naomi Klein discussed her new book, How to Change Everything, which aims to prepare children and teens to protect and reshape the planet they will inherit.
Speaking for the Trees: 'The Lorax' Celebrates 50 Years
To mark a half-century of publication, Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises are celebrating the environmental legacy of Seuss’s hero with special editions and more.