Turning the page on climate change

Bijal Vachharajani

If someone had told my childhood self that I would grow up to be an author, I would have looked incredulous and gone back to burrowing my nose into a book or staring at a tree, lost in magical lands.

Illustrations: Soumya Menon

Like the extremely late bloomer that I am, children’s books as a career choice came to me late in life as well. I have been a journalist, editor of a magazine, worked with animals, run a school programme on tiger conservation, and managed communication for organizations that worked with farmers, climate, and animal advocacy. All of that non-moss gathering rolling stone action became the grist for my writing and editing career in children’s books.

I have always felt woolly wherever I have been – in the classroom as an introverted child, in the newsroom fumbling with ideas, and even at home. Books were my refuge, and it was animals who I turned to for comfort. Which is why being able to write books for children about the environment and animals was a dream come true, only a dream I didn’t really know I had. I had always hoped to grow up to be a penguin rescuer (Didn’t exactly work out, but I am now a Penguin author).

When I wrote my first nonfiction book, So You Want to Know About the Environment (Red Turtle, 2017), it was a way of bringing together my work in climate change, food, water, waste, and wildlife together. I had spent many years reviewing children’s books for Time Out in India, and writing about them for newspapers and websites, and I always wanted to have a green book about India for middle graders. Our environmental issues, our enigmatic wildlife, our people.

There were so many lovely picture books about animals and the environment published by some amazing publishing houses. But as children grew up, nature seemed to be slipping away from the narrative. One of the big reasons I always loved Ranjit Lal’s stories is because they’re full of humour, natural history, and adventure, so many fabulous ingredients that make his books absolutely a classic – from Birds from My Window and the Antics They Get Up To (Puffin) to The Tigers of Taboo Valley (Red Turtle) and 10 Indian Animals You May Never See Again in the Wild (Duckbill). Memorable characters, rich settings, and tongue-firmly-in-cheek writing.

The same goes for Zai Whitaker, and it’s a delight to see so many of her books being republished with new covers and illustrations – whether it’s her memoir of Salim Ali for Children: The Bird Man of India or Cobra in My Kitchen and Other Adventures with Wildlife (Hachette). The stories are sharp, her writing brimming with a sense of rhythm and the wisdom that comes from years spent with the wild.

Coupled with the writer on the hill, Ruskin Bond, for me these books were my introduction to Indian nature writing for children in English.

But as I finished my non-fiction book, I began thinking back to my Master’s. Troubled by my lack of understanding about climate change, I went to study the subject in Costa Rica. As a journalist, I have always been fascinated about the way we talk about the climate crisis – how our opinion about this hard scientific fact is often forged by the media, politics, and peers, rather than data. In one of our classes, I had come across atmospheric brown clouds – a cocktail wrought from emissions from fossil fuels and biomass. The more I read about them and their adverse impact, the more I began imagining what if a tangible brown cloud hovered over the city of Mumbai.

That’s how the plot of A Cloud Called Bhura (Talking Cub) came together, a climate adventure where four children seek out the truth of the brown cloud, in the smog of disinformation and apathy. I didn’t really think of it as climate fiction then. It was not a genre I set out to write. I took six years to write the book, and by the time it got published, Greta Thunberg’s clarion call to children across the world was taking root and spreading across the mycorrhizal network of young and old minds. Children were stepping out and becoming part of the Fridays for Future movement and refusing to accept growing up in a climate-changed world.

Writing about climate change seems hard. The science is complex. There’s so much jargon to untangle.

But here’s the thing, it’s very much something we’re all witnessing and feeling. In different ways, and very much inequitably, this crisis is defining our lives, it’s reshaping the Earth we live in, the contours of it, and threatening several existences.

Recently, someone asked me why climate fiction, and I was thinking that if we are to write anything about our present world, how can we leave out the changes we see around us? Heat waves, water crisis, livelihood insecurity, bleached coral reefs, changes in weather patterns, food scarcity, and rising prices, these are not future tenses any more. They’re very much our present tense. A present, imperfect tense that we are living with, where it impacts some more than others.

And children are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Like my childhood self, I turned to stories to cope. That’s why climate fiction. Stories that remind us that climate narratives are not all about post-apocalyptical doom and gloom. That offer hope in the form of solutions, agency to young readers through characters that take on countless challenges in the wake of the climate crisis in different ways, and a way to imagine better futures. As someone who derives comfort from books (and chocolate), fiction is what I turn to, to make sense of the perplexing realities, the characters nudging me into thinking about different perspectives, and of finding answers in the complexity of the make-believe worlds that I love so much.

Closer home, climate change is easiest to find in the non-fiction shelf. Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour comics have been regaling people while informing them about the crisis, and introducing them to the splendours of the natural world. Yuvan Aves’s Shorewalk (Tulika Books) is a lyrical exploration of our coast and the perils wrought by the climate crisis. Meghaa Gupta’s Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India (Puffin, 2020) brings to the forefront the story of our country’s environment, its people, and its denizens; while Bibek Bhattacharya and Joanna Davala’s Our Beautiful World is a brilliant primer to climate change.

Meanwhile, Karadi Tales collaborated with People’s Archive of Rural India to create a series of books based on ‘real stories of rural India, disenfranchised people and communities, and the unique challenges they overcome every day’. These include books about the climate crisis – Ammini Against the Storm by Vishaka George and Versova Vortex by Subuhi Jiwani.

Dubbed the Greta Thunberg Effect in The Guardian, books about the climate crisis have been gaining traction in publishing houses across the world. Internationally, author Lauren James started a collective called the Climate Fiction Writers League, which is home to writers from different parts of the world. James, MG Leonard, Nicola Penfold, Bren MacDibble, Eli Brown, LR Lam, Rebecca Lim, Oisín McGann, Tolá Okogwu, Neal and Brendan Shusterman, Louie Stowell are some of the authors who have put climate change in their stories.

A welcome occurrence, after all in 2012, a study *showed that “there have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals, while built environments have become much more common” in picture books that had won the prestigious Caldecott Medal from the years 1938 to 2008.

Already in 2005, author Richard Louv had introduced the concept of nature-deficit disorder in his book, Last Child in the Woods. On his blog, he explains, “I coined the phrase to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from nature… as a way to talk about an urgent problem that many of us knew was growing, but had no language to describe it.” Professor Peter Kahn and Thea Wiess co-authored a paper where they described the term “environmental generational amnesia – the idea that each generation perceives the environment into which it’s born, no matter how developed, urbanized or polluted, as the norm. And so, what each generation comes to think of as ‘nature’ is relative, based on what it’s exposed to.”

That means, a child growing up in Delhi with its rising AQI (Air Quality Index) will know winters as forever smoggy and hurtful to her lungs. Or that water scarcity in Bengaluru is just the new normal. I see this in my interactions with urban children, their dominant memories of their city are of pollution, cement, garbage, horns, and heat. Increasingly, children can’t tell a myna from a crow, or name five common trees including the gulmohar or the mango. Forget naming, often they have not climbed a tree. Ever.

Books then become a sort of archive for our climate. But also, a celebration. An invitation back to the natural world. Start young, with stories that make children fall in love with their planet and its denizens. After all, we protect what we love. Then inspire. Read, and explore the natural world. Share the problems, yes. But also share the stories of people who champion the planet, who work hard every day to find solutions to protect, adapt, mitigate, and conserve. The wonderful animals, insects, birds we share our planet with. It’s their enthusiasm for stories and the natural world that continue to offer me hope and keep me writing.

I sat on a virtual assembly one Earth Day, moved by the pledges of children – they promised to walk to school or car pool, stop using plastic, waste less, recycle more. But I realized in all of this, what we really need is a rallying pledge to love and explore our planet with empathy – the trees of our neighbourhood, the plants in our school playground, the spiders, butterflies and moths, geckos, birds, and insects in our society’s backyard. Only when you know that one tree intimately, will you want to protect it. Else it’s just a tree. Or just a bird. Or just an elephant. Or just a tiger. Or just a planet.

12 climate books for your library

  1. Future Hopes: Hopeful stories in a time of climate change edited by Lauren James
  2. Ranjit Lal’s 10 Indian Animals You May Never See Again in the Wild
  3. Rohan Chakravarty’s Naturalist Ruddy
  4. Yuvan Aves’s Shorewalk
  5. Various: We Hope: Children on Climate Change
  6. Meghaa Gupta’s Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India
  7. Bibek Bhattacharya and Joanna Davala’s Our Beautiful World
  8. Nicola Penfold’s Between Sea and Sky
  9. Lauren James’s Green Rising
  10. MG Leonard’s Beetle Boy series
  11. StORI Series by Karadi Tales
  12. Anushka Ravishankar, Karthika Naïr, Salil Chaturvedi, Sampurna Chattarji, Aindri C’s Earth, Our Home

*Jr, J. & Podeschi, Christopher & Palmer, Nathan & Schwadel, Philip & Meyler, Deanna. (2012). The Human-Environment Dialog in Award-Winning Children’s Picture Books. Sociological Inquiry. 82. 145-159. 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2011.00399.x.

The author is the author of multiple climate-friendly books including A Cloud Called Bhura, Savi and the Memory Keeper, PS What’s Up With the Climate and When Fairyland Lost Its Magic. She co-wrote 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting to Save the Planet. A commissioning editor at Pratham Books, she’s now a climate worrier. She can be reached on Instagram at bijalvv.

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