Eco-adventures with a message

Authors Claire Datnow and Bruce Smith discuss their eco-fiction books for younger readers, Red Flag Warning and Legend Keepers.

Claire: Bruce, as a science writer and wildlife biologist, what motivated you to switch from nonfiction to environmental fiction for middle grades?

Bruce: It wasn’t planned. Instead, the idea leapt from the pages of my nonfiction book, Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the Mountain Goat. While on tour for that book, I was dismayed that few children attended my book events. Their parents and grandparents didn’t bring them, even though event publicity made clear “This is a talk for the whole family, with lots of slides of animals.” In an Ah Ha! moment, I decided to write a story specifically for kids. I’d talk directly to them, or rather the characters in my novel would.

I remain hopeful about the future of humans, our planet, and Earth’s biological diversity because of the aspirations and activism I see in children. I want to nourish that and kindle the passion of young readers. Middle grade seems the sweet spot for the stories I want to tell. Those kids are learning about science and the concepts I want to write about. Plus, most middle graders are captivated by animals and nature.

Claire: I totally agree. After decades of misinformation, denial, and inadequate attempts to reduce the dire impact of climate change young people around the world are troubled and frustrated. They are searching for ways to understand climate warning and to take action. Compelling, informative narratives can inspire them to do that.

Bruce: What has been the arc of your writing journey, Claire?

Claire: When I was kid growing up in that faraway land of Johannesburg, South Africa, I loved playing outside. In the garden, I pretended the variety of flowers were my students and I was their teacher and storyteller. Back then, an exciting adventure was a drive into the country for a family picnic, followed by a hike in the veld. I also fantasized about traveling worldwide. I guess I was a nature lover, teacher, and explorer from an early age. In college I majored in anthropology, which sparked my interest in the indigenous people of South Africa, and, later, of cultures around the globe. When I become a teacher, my students and I built a nature trail on the school grounds, now named the Audubon-Datnow Forest Preserve. All these experiences and passions are reflected in the books I write.

Storytelling is a powerful way to ignite the imagination while entertaining, informing, and empowering readers to take action that can make a difference for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth. The epiphany that inspired me to begin writing Eco mysteries struck me one morning driving to work down the road winding through a wooded hillside. As I approached the bottom of hill, I screamed out loud, “How dare they!” Overnight a swath of naked red dirt had replaced a verdant forest. A forest of oak, hickory, and pine, which had sheltered and sustained a rich diversity of life, had been bulldozed to barren patch of clay. Just one ancient white oak, standing like a tower of hope, had been spared. 

After that, whenever I drove by the oak tree it kept on calling to me to share its sad tale.  I imagined the oak telling its story to the neighborhood’s children. Nine months later, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: The Lone Tree became the first Eco mystery to blossom into a series of nine books published over the past decade.

Bruce, What challenges did you meet in making the switch from nonfiction to fiction?

Bruce: My previous works were 5 adult nonfiction books of science, natural history, and outdoor adventure. I had no experience writing fiction. I knew I had much to learn. I began reading craft books and joined an SCBWI writers’ group.

In my nonfiction writing, I was used to writing book proposals for publishing houses to consider. Among the elements in book proposals is an annotated chapter by chapter outline of the work. I was used to carefully planning each project. By definition, I was a plotter. When I started, I didn’t know the full story arc of Legend Keepers: The Chosen One. As I began drafting the early chapters, I had to learn to let the story happen, often with the guidance of the characters’ interactions. Also new to me was developing a story’s cast of characters. As each appeared (sometimes while I was hiking or in my dreams), I fleshed out their physical traits, behaviors, quirks, and relationships to others, creating a character bible. The protagonist and secondary characters had as much to do with the story’s arc as did any preconceived plot. I’ve come to see that approaching the story with an open mind is essential to the creative process, being able to let go of what I thought “would be.” I love the creativity of fiction.

Claire: Allowing your imagination free reign is both the challenge and the excitement of writing fiction for me.

Bruce: What shaped your interest in writing eco-fiction for kids?

Claire: Storytelling is a powerful way to ignite the imagination while entertaining, informing, and empowering readers to take action that can make a difference for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth. The epiphany that inspired me to begin writing Eco mysteries struck me one morning driving to work down the road winding through a wooded hillside. As I approached the bottom of hill, I screamed out loud, “How dare they!” Overnight a swath of naked red dirt had replaced a verdant forest. A forest of oak, hickory, and pine, which had sheltered and sustained a rich diversity of life, had been bulldozed to barren patch of clay. Just one ancient white oak, standing like a tower of hope, had been spared.  

After that, whenever I drove by the oak tree it kept on calling to me to share its sad tale.  I imagined the oak telling its story to the neighborhood’s children. Nine months later, The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: The Lone Tree became the first Eco mystery to blossom into a series of nine books published over the past decade.

Bruce: Yes, kids (including us big kids too!) love stories.Storytelling dates back as far as human history, ethnologists tell us. It’s vital for passing down information, group bonding, entertainment, cultural identity, and survival. Stories have beginnings and endings. We want to know how the story ends. Listeners, or readers, remain engaged. In my nonfiction works, I used storytelling to translate science for lay readerships. Fiction allows us to expand the readers’ experience. I want learning to be almost subliminal by being integral to the characters’ stories.

For kids, animal characters serve as trusted teachers. I believe lessons learned in the course of reading animal fantasies and magical realism will stick with them.

Claire, where did the idea for Red Flag Warning spring from?

Claire: This novel was sparked by the unprecedented wildfires exploding around the world. The courage of real-life young eco heroes, like Greta Thunburg, who are urging the grownups to save our planet, also inspired me to create the young tweens and teens in my novels.

Bruce: Yes, these young activists are today’s heroes and perhaps tomorrow’s leaders. How did you decide on the transglobal settings for Red Flag Warning?

Claire: After I had finished writing Red Flag Warning, I saw more clearly how I’d woven diverse, multicultural, indigenous, and global themes into my story. All three characters draw strength and pride from the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. Red Flag Warning follows the adventures of three special young people from across the world, the amazing animals that are part of their lives, and the terrible threats they face, threats that affect the entire world. The three teens, all scarred by fire, struggle with the deeper wounds to their self-image and dreams. They must learn to respect the wildness of the animals they love and find their own voices, along with the power of community, in the mission to heal the Earth. And, although they come from very different backgrounds the three become close friends.

Bruce: You’ve written many novels for tweens and teens. I’m fascinated to know how you come up with the many characters in your books. Are some based, in part, on real people?

Claire: Sometimes real people provide the inspiration for the characters in my stories while others spring from my imagination. I try to figure out how different characters will overcome challenges based on their needs and goals. As I get further into the plot, they become more real to me and “tell” me who they are and how they will react.

Why did you choose a young mountain goat as the hero of your story?

Bruce: I thought a MG novel about the lives of mountain goats, and other animals of the alpine zone that few people see or know about, would charm children. These species suffer from conservation neglect and need an ardent following, including children. Perhaps especially children.

Other MG books have featured cats, dogs, bears. The One and Only Ivan features Ivan the gorilla and Ruby the elephant. The Tale of Despereaux features a mouse. Charlotte’s Web stars a spider. Plenty of other books have animal protagonists. But never a mountain goat. And by gosh, it’s about time. By now you’ve guessed that I’m fond of mountain goats. I’ve observed, photographed, studied, and written about them for almost 50 years. When kids see images of these furry, photogenic cliff dwellers, they just smile. They want to know more.

Claire: I also choose to introduce animals into my story. Aisyah a compassionate free spirit from Sumatra, bonds with Pongo an endangered orangutan. Kirri a competitive marathon runner from Australia, bonds with Rocky an endangered Rock wallaby. And then there’s Hector, a headstrong and gifted falconer from California, who bonds with Swain, a magnificent Swainson’s hawk.

Bruce why did you choose to include other animals beside mountain goats into the story?

Bruce: Animal (and plant) species don’t exist in isolation. This story takes place in a high mountain environment where mountain goats share their home with a community of biota. I wanted readers to see Buddy’s story within the context of the out-of-sight and out-of-mind species with which goats interact. Her unique ability to communicate with other species (under certain conditions) provides the reader greater insight into mountain goat society but also the community of species in which Buddy lives.

Secondly, new plot points often required new characters to help carry the story. Each character, in her or his own way, presented obstacles or aided Buddy. All were part of her struggle to achieve her internal need and external goals. Don’t get me wrong, Buddy is quite exceptional, even for a mountain goat! To survive being orphaned and then to undertake her quest on behalf of her band required great courage, perseverance, and determination. One of her greatest strengths was her willingness to trust others. One message here is that no great task is accomplished alone.

Finally, the unique personalities of the other characters add interest, humor, and texture to Buddy’s story.

Claire, what about the main characters, Aisyah, Kirri, and Hector, in Red Flag Warning? Tell me about their origins?

Claire: I chose Sumatra, Australia, and California as my setting because of the frequency of wildfires there. I also chose characters from different countries and backgrounds to show that fires driven by the warming environment impact diverse people, animals, and plants worldwide. Aisyah’s ancestors are the Batak people of Sumatra, Indonesia. Kirri’s ancestors are the Aboriginal people of Australia. Hector has roots in the Native American people of Mexico. All three protagonists have bonded with their animals native to their regions.

Bruce: Do they have similar or different inner needs and challenges they must overcome to fulfill those needs?

Claire: All three protagonists have similar challenges but come from different backgrounds and countries. The three teens, all scarred by fire, struggle with the deeper wounds to their self-image and dreams. They must learn to respect the wildness of the different animals they love and find their own voices, along with the power of community, in their mission to heal the Earth.

Global warming is the overarching theme of Legend Keepers. How did you choose to incorporate this complex and serious theme into your story?

Bruce: Legend Keepers arose from my desire to reach kids with conservation topics of importance to me. Climate change is near the top of that list. One chapter in Life on the Rocks addresses how the warming environment is affecting alpine biota. We know that habitats at the highest latitudes and altitudes are warming fastest. Species there are among those that must adapt behaviorally and genetically fastest. If they can. I’m knowledgeable about alpine species and the climate challenges they face. And I’m a fan of mountain goats, as I’ve said. Basing this novel on the lives of mountain goats—the North American large mammal that lives at the highest elevations—was a logical gateway to climate change.

Claire, we don’t get to see Dr. Gladys’ character’s transition from her viewpoint. Was that your intent?

Claire: Keeping endangered animals in zoos is a controversial issue. I intentionally chose not to completely explain the doctor’s final decisions from her POV. In that way, I hope to stimulate lively discussions and additional research on the topic.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Legend Keepers?

Bruce: There are both life lessons as well as environmental aspects. I’ve alluded to some in answers to earlier questions. In short, Legend Keepers is a story of hope, perseverance, and finding one’s purpose. It’s a story in which kids will see themselves, as Buddy overcomes loss and hardship while learning the value of friendship and family. I hope that kids will take away this: Step outside your comfort zone to pursue something worthwhile, something you know is right. If you persist and attain that goal, you’ll find fulfillment, especially if the goal benefits others.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Red Flag Warning?

Claire: Climate change is a serious topic that should not be sugar coated. Fiction can be a powerful way to make future consequences more immediate to ourselves and our students.  I hope that my readers will understand that that science-based solutions are the key to reducing the consequences of climate change. I weave scientific knowledge into the story to create hopeful but realistic endings to my story rather than gloomy or magical fairytale ones.

Can you provide a glimpse into the sequel to Legend Keepers you are planning?

Bruce: In Legend Keepers: The Partnership, Buddy remains a prominent character. But the narrative expands to the human world with the entrance of twelve-year-old Garson and other human characters. Garson faces some personal challenges: he’s insecure, in a new community, and his father goes missing in the war. Garson doesn’t fit in at school. Then something dramatic happens in his life that promises to be life changing. His life intersects with Buddy’s in a most astonishing way. Climate change is integral to the story. Like The Chosen One, The Partnership is a hopeful story. But the story’s arc will serve up more challenges for both Garson and Buddy. 

Claire, what book are you working on now?

Claire: After Red Flag Warning, I’ve begun writing the second book in a trilogy, The Whale’s Lament. When Alysie Muckpa discovers a gray whale washed up on the beach near her isolated village in Alaska, she tucks an urgent message into a plastic bottle, found in a ball of trash in the whale’s stomach, and tosses it back into the ocean. The bottle rides on the California Current that flows along the western coast of North America, to Mexico 5,000 miles away. Her message triggers an unstoppable chain of events, leading her and three other teenagers, who find the bottle, down a path of discovery and danger to help save the whales.

Bruce, Thank you so much for exchanging your thoughts and goals about writing environmental fiction for young people. I wish you continuing fulfillment with your books for middle graders.

Bruce: Claire, this has been such a pleasure, learning about the inspiration and craft of your climate fiction writing.

Find out more about Legend Keepers and Red Flag Warning.

Claire Datnow grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her family originates from Lithuania. Claire immigrated to the United States with her husband, Dr. Boris Datnow, in 1965. She has published numerous works of nonfiction ranging from news features and educational materials, to biographies for young adults. She taught gifted and talented children, in the Birmingham, Alabama Public School System. She has received numerous scholarships and grants including a Beeson Samford University Writing Project fellowship, a Folk Life Grant from the Alabama Arts Council, a Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher scholarship to Japan, the Blanche Dean Award for Environmental Education, and Birmingham Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

Bruce Smith is a wildlife biologist who holds a PhD degree in Zoology. During his career with the federal government, he studied and managed most large mammal species that roam the western United States. He’s authored five nonfiction books of natural history, conservation, and outdoor adventure. Among them is Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the Mountain Goat, which won the National Outdoor Book Award.

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. Her upcoming release is Green Rising, a climate change thriller. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2021. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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