Give me Hope, Jones.
Bijal Vachharajani talks to Josh Lacey about his Hope Jones Middle Grade series.
When I was studying climate change in Costa Rica, one of the things that stuck with me amidst all the doom and gloom we knew to expect, was that hope is what keeps the world spinning. Because without hope, how do we go on in a world that’s seeing relentless heat waves, unpredictable weather conditions, and making us all crankier? After all it is that feeling which drives human beings to find solutions, to dream big, and to aspire for change (not the climate kind).
It’s something that as an eternal climate worrier, I underscore my books with. My middle grade novel, A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, is about a group of teenagers who take on a brown (Bhura is brown in Hindi) cloud of pollution that has taken over their city and they do it with so much panache and grit. My non-fiction book, So You Want to Know About the Environment offers tangible actions for young readers, and to my utter surprise, many have actually filled pages and pages of the book. These books are based on my work with children, and I always come back with the feeling that they care, and in a very intense way that demands attention from us groan-ups.
Which is why I was thrilled when Josh Lacey’s Hope Jones Clears the Air came my way, right after reading Hope Jones Will Not Eat Meat. Illustrated by Beatrice Castro, the middle grade book is part of a series where the eponymous ten-year-old announces that she is going to save the world (That is also the name of the first book in the series, Hope Jones Saves the World). And she does in her own kickass way. Hope Jones is pretty much the sum of all the young people and children out there who are advocating for a cleaner future, who are refusing to settle for a status quo, and who are taking small and big steps to combat the climate crisis. I caught up with the author over email, and found out more about this cool Hope Jones who gives us all reason to believe in a better future.
So how did the Hope Jones series start? And of course, the story behind the name.
I had been trying to write a book about climate change for some time, but my efforts weren’t succeeding. Eventually I realised the problem: I was writing about my own feelings, which are mostly pessimistic, and so my drafts were too depressing, especially for children, my intended audience. And then, somehow, a girl strode into the story, and grabbed it, and demanded to tell it herself. I started writing again, this time in the first person. The girl announced her name was Hope, and her character followed from her name: she was forward-looking, passionate, determined, and full of optimism.
That explains the character’s first name. I think her second name comes from two very strong fictional characters, Indiana Jones and Halo Jones, no relation to one another, let alone Hope Jones. (If you haven’t come across Halo Jones, she’s the protagonist of a brilliant comic strip originally published in 2000AD. Highly recommended.)
‘You couldn’t possibly stop pollution,’ Mum said. ‘It’s everywhere!’ ‘I can try,’ I said. – to me this was such a great example of some of the underlying stories in your books – that no one is too small to make a difference, that no one is just ordinary when it comes to the environment, and that doing something is better than nothing. Tell us more!
I think you’ve summed it up perfectly! I don’t know what else to say, really. I suppose my books always put the child at the centre of the story, whether that’s defeating a tyrannical ruler (A Dog Called Grk) or dealing with a mischievous pet (The Dragonsitter). When writing about climate change, I wanted to describe how children can make a difference in very ordinary and everyday ways: using a bike rather than a car, for instance, or boycotting plastic.
What made you decide to use the blog-illustration-list-letters format for this book?
Having written the Dragonsitter books in emails, I knew that I wanted to use something similar: a first-person format, which allowed me to use a child’s voice to tell the story. A blog had the additional benefit of suiting the subject matter perfectly, because Hope has a message which she wants to tell us.
What I love about your books is the threading of facts with fiction. What is the kind of research you do when writing this series, is it hard blending facts with fiction?
Thank you! When I wrote these books, I spent a lot of time on research, mostly reading books and articles, and chatting to people. I did find it very difficult to merge factual information with the demands of a narrative. It was also hard to put facts and figures into the blog in Hope’s voice, rather than my own. The format certainly helped a lot, because I could use tables, pie charts, spreadsheets, etc., which was fun.
How did you zone into the topics for your books – plastic, meat and now pollution?
They’re issues that I care about myself, and areas of our lives that we can all change, however young (or old) we might be. We can all decide to have a jacket potato rather than a beef burger, or choose not to use an extra plastic bag. Children may not have the power to make many of the decisions in their own lives, but they can have a strong and important impact on their parents’ decisions through discussion and argument.
Could you share some reader reactions with us? Both children and adults.
I haven’t had much chance to meet the readers of these books, because they’ve been published during lockdown. However, I have had some nice emails from readers. I’ve also been really delighted that lots of teachers have been in touch to say that they’ll be using the Hope Jones books as class readers, because they fit very well with topics that children are covering in schools at the moment.
From fantasy worlds to really real world problems, tell us about this journey in your writing.
Actually, I’ve always written stories which are set in the everyday world, although some of them have had some more fantastical or unusual elements. My first children’s book, A Dog Called Grk, was about a very ordinary boy who finds a dog in the street, and the adventures that follow. That story had political themes: the antagonist is a dictator who punishes dissent and locks up his enemies, including the dog’s owners. Other books in the Grk series touched on climate change and environmental activism.
Has your writing brought about green changes in your life as well? Are you active like Hope Jones in climate activism?
I have certainly changed my own behaviour because of my research and writing, yes, although I’m ashamed to admit that I am much less active than Hope. I have been on marches and written letters to my MP, but I haven’t transformed my life with anything like her passion and determination.
What do you hope to see more of in climate fiction in children’s literature?
At the moment, there’s an amazing number of good children’s books with environmental themes, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the adults who really need some schooling now.
Is firstname.lastname@example.org active, do you get mails on it?
I liked the idea of using a real email address, so yes, I have set this up, and I do check it often. I thought I might get one or two people writing to me, but I’ve actually been surprised by the number of messages. When I reply, I always make it clear that I’m writing as myself rather than Hope, because I would feel awkward impersonating her.
Tell us about working with Beatriz Castro.
Unfortunately, I haven’t actually met her (she lives in Spain and I live in the UK) and all our interactions have gone through the designer and editor at Andersen. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing her interpretations of my characters, and she’s brought her own vision and ideas to the story, which has been wonderful. I’m especially delighted by her illustrations for the third book, when Hope makes a trip to Amsterdam, and Beatriz has done some lovely drawings of that beautiful city with its bicycles, canals, and Van Goghs.
Hope Jones isn’t going to stop here. What do we hope she will tackle next?
Ah, that’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer.
You can find out more about the Hope Jones series here.
Josh Lacey is the author of many children’s books, including A Dog Called Grk and The Dragonsitter.
When Bijal Vachharajani is not reading a children’s book, she is writing or editing one. She has written A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, which won the Auther Children’s Book Award 2020, and So You Want to Know About the Environment, and has co-authored 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting to Save the Planet and The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky. Her picture books include P.S. What’s up with the climate?, What’s Neema Eating Today? and The Seed Savers. The former editor of Time Out Bengaluru, Bijal has worked with 350.org, Fairtrade and Sanctuary Asia. Senior Editor at Pratham Books, Bijal has a Masters in Environment Security and Peace, with a specialisation in climate change from the University for Peace.