The Bologna Children’s Book Fair hosted a panel discussion exploring the crucial role that children’s literature can play in educating and empowering young readers to become vocal advocates and change agents for a sustainable future. The round table, entitled “Reading for the Planet: Children’s Books for a Sustainable Future,” was chaired by Ed Nawotka, senior international editor at Publishers Weekly, and featured a group of panelists representing the publishing industry, academia, and the United Nations. It was accompanied by an exhibit of books on the same topic.

Establishing a baseline for conversations, Karine Pansa, president of the International Publishers Association, described the IPA’s ongoing collaboration with the UN on the SDG Book Club, an initiative that curates titles from around the world that align with and promote the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. “We have selected 115 titles divided into the 17 categories,” Pansa explained. “It’s a very good list for any parent or teacher to start with if they want to help children understand the issues the SDG address.”

Irina Lumelsky from United Nations Publications emphasized the urgency of the “decade of action” leading up to 2030, the target date for achieving the SDGs. She noted that progress has been hindered by global crises like the pandemic, making it all the more critical for every part of society to take action now. “Whether you’re an individual, nonprofit, commercial entity, publisher, or academic institution, everybody can do their part,” she said. Lumelsky shared that more than 300 publishers have already signed onto the UN’s SDG Publishers Compact, committing to both sustainable practices and publishing books that promote the global goals.

Panelists agreed that creating effective children’s books on complex sustainability topics requires a careful balancing act: presenting scientific information accurately yet accessibly, and telling engaging stories that inspire a sense of wonder and agency rather than despair or paralysis.

“On one side, we have to use age-appropriate language and break down complex concepts into simpler terms without losing the accuracy of the information conveyed,” said Elisa Palazzi, a climatologist at the University of Turin and author of children’s books on climate change, including Siamo tutti Greta (We Are All Greta, Daedalus Editions, 2022), which she wrote with Sara Moraca. “But telling personal stories is also important because they have the capacity to touch emotions and inspire children to take action.” Showing relatable examples of young changemakers is key “to let children understand they can be agents of positive change,” Palazzi added. “Even [through] a small act, all together, we can be a positive community making a revolution.”

Inês Castel-Branco, publisher of Spain’s Akiara Books, argued that beyond providing information, books for the youngest readers should aim to awaken and nurture children’s innate sense of curiosity about the natural world. She quoted a passage from biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

“Wonder is not enough,” countered Ferdinando Boero, a zoologist and president of the Dohrn Foundation in Naples. While an initial sense of awe is important, he said awareness and knowledge are critical so that people truly understand and appreciate less charismatic but vitally important species. He lamented that few are aware of the existence, let alone the ecological importance, of tiny marine creatures like copepods and diatoms that play an outsized role in ocean health. “It’s a tragedy that nobody knows they exist,” Boero said. “We cannot take care of things we don’t know.”

The challenge for illustrators, Palazzi noted, is representing complex subjects in an engaging way, which requires close collaboration with authors from the earliest stages. Castel-Branco emphasized the importance of publishers thoroughly vetting nonfiction content and working closely with authors and illustrators to present information through compelling, age-appropriate narratives.

Boero drew a distinction between information and true knowledge. “Children can study an image of the water cycle, but if they don’t connect the dots between this image and the environment and how they live in it, it doesn’t become real knowledge.” He argued that a deeper understanding is what will ultimately drive the broad social changes needed for sustainability.

Beyond content, panelists also addressed the publishing industry’s responsibility to “walk the walk” by making its own operations more sustainable. Castel-Branco shared how her publishing house applies the principles of Eco-edicion, a project from the government of Spain that helps publishers reduce their carbon footprint and communicate their efforts transparently. She outlined some key practices, including printing locally, using FSC-certified and recycled papers, vegetable-based inks, renewable energy, and avoiding plastic in packaging. However, the panelists acknowledged the challenges small publishers face, as eco-friendly papers and inks can be cost-prohibitive, and not always available at or compatible with printers even if they want to use them. This is especially true in smaller or less developed publishing markets, such as those in the global South. .

The speakers expressed hope that despite young people’s understandable anxiety about issues like climate change, their innate curiosity and desire to shape a better world can be nurtured through inspiring, informative books. “When I talk to young people, that [gives] me hope for the future,” Palazzi said. Boero agreed, “We don’t have to create it—their curiosity is innate. We have to keep it alive while they grow up. That’s the big challenge.”