On hope and writing the future by Nicola Penfold

I write novels centered in the natural world in which the joint catastrophes of climate change and the nature crisis loom large – perfect, terrifying ingredients for post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. Which have always been my favourite type of stories.

But because these things are not in the realm of fantasy, sometimes even I have to admit, you need a break from the world’s unfolding disaster. You want to imagine better outcomes. Ones where we do actually ‘look up’ – to borrow the allegory from the 2021 blockbuster movie – and see the comet coming in time.

Writers for young people have a special responsibility perhaps. It’s a broken world we’re passing on, and whatever steps we take now, their lives are going to be different to ours, because of what we and previous generations have done. And because of what we failed to do.

I was thinking up ideas for my next book as the world was coming out of COVID restrictions. It didn’t feel the time for a bleak dystopic vision of planet Earth. I wanted to be hopeful. I took inspiration from David Attenborough’s speech at Glasgow’s COP26.

If working apart, we are force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely, working together, we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.

What if the world did work together and take action on the massive and unprecedented scale the twin crises demand? What if there was a wonderful recovery?

In Beyond the Frozen Horizon, I do it on the very first page, wrapping up succinctly some of the things I wish most for our world. It’s easy on paper. In my book, for thirty years or so now, fossil fuels have been kept in the ground, meat and dairy consumption have drastically reduced, there’s been a ban on single use plastics and fast fashion, and, crucially, vast areas have been set aside as wilderness zones. In other words, much of the world has been left to rewild itself.

The end result isn’t that dissimilar from my previous books. In Where the World Turns Wild, a rewilded world is achieved through disease – much of humanity is wiped out, and survivors are confined to sealed off cities. In Between Sea and Sky, much of humanity has again been wiped out, this time by a series of environmental disasters – floods, storms, fire, famine. The landscape around Blackwater Bay, where that book is set, has been abandoned, and lost species are returning.

It was nice, in Beyond the Frozen Horizon, to do it without the death count.

My main character is a 13-year-old girl called Rory, who travels with her geologist mum to Svalbard. Her mum’s got a job with a green energy company, who are mining for rare earth metals. The company insist their presence in the remote archipelago won’t negatively impact wildlife or the land itself. And anyway, they’re part of the recovery, providing essential materials for green technology. I’m sure you’ll already be suspicious. I needed a threat – this might not be a dystopia but it’s far from utopic – and corporate greed and greenwashing become the enemy. Human appetite for progress and things and experiences and more things, hasn’t gone away.

It was poignant, writing about thriving wildlife in the Arctic as, in real life, the ice melts, and there were times I wondered if it’s a copout – imagining that humankind might actually have taken big enough steps to save the world. I do think it has a value though. I’ve always believed in stories as refuge – places to go, when the world is hard. The climate and nature crises are petrifying, relentless things to live with. They can overwhelm us. This framework for the story enabled me to allow readers to experience the Arctic without being bludgeoned with sadness. We know so much now, about how and why the natural world is good for us. Reading about a place isn’t the same as being there, but it goes some way. The same parts of the brain can be activated. And most of us won’t ever get to visit the Arctic in real life (and it would be disastrous if we all did).

Rory falls in love with the stark icy wilderness. It stuns her, frightens her, but it brings her clarity too, on her own life. She’s so small there, in the vastness of everything. She makes friends as well, which has been something that’s been lacking lately, in her life back home. Rory doesn’t become a different person, but she becomes more herself, I think. I wanted readers to have this chance too, just for a little while, in the pages of my story.

I’m not done with dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction. It’s easy to dismiss these genres as bleak and depressing, but I believe there’s a creative power to imagining human life brought so close to the brink. How would we start again? How would things be different? Surely the natural world would have to be given more prominence. It’s what will save us in the end, just as, in Beyond the Frozen Horizon, it’s what saves Rory.

Here are six children’s and young adult book recommendations, where we see the balance tipped in favour of the natural world. Where plants and animals can heal us.

  • Bloom by Nicola Skinner – the story of how a packet of surprising seeds changes and greens a grey, grim town. Effortlessly funny and brilliant!
  • Savi and the Memory Keeper by Bijal Vachharajani. The Overstory for children. Actually, I haven’t read The Overstory, but this book brings plants and trees and their inter-connectedness to life so wonderfully, I’m making that claim anyway. It’s got humour and sadness in equal measure. Published by Hachette India. I’d love to see it become more widely available.
  • Green Rising by Lauren James – Around the world, teenagers sprout plants from their skin. Corrupt corporations try and exploit the phenomenon, but can the Green Rising triumph and save planet Earth?
  • Dogs of the Deadlandsby Anthony McGowan. Not ostensibly climate-fiction, but this shows rewilding in action. Life in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
  • When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari – a small urban wilderness comes into centre stage in this unflinching, much acclaimed novel, about trauma and loss, and how we heal.
  • The Last Bear (and The Lost Whale – I’m sneaking in a seventh!) by Hannah Gold. Hannah is wonderful at making us feel a real connection to specific animals, and opening up our hearts and minds to what it takes to save them.

All my covers are illustrated by Kate Forrester!

Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English Literature at Cambridge University. Nicola has worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most. Nicola writes ecological adventure stories for Little Tiger, with a focus on natural solutions to climate change. Her debut novel Where the World Turns Wild was chosen as a Future Classic for the BookTrust School Library Pack, and shortlisted for several regional awards. This has been followed by Between Sea and Sky and Beyond the Frozen Horizon. Her books are perfect for upper KS2 and KS3.

Solutions Spotlight

In this extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Sarah E. Lewis shares an extract from The Change Agentsabout animals seeking an extraordinary partnership with humans and racing together against the climate crisis to save their shared world:

The wolf looked calmly and authoritatively at the Alliance members and then scanned the attendees in the gallery, making all feel included. She said, “We called this special meeting of the Alliance to discuss a new development in our Climate Change Initiative. Mission Command has been working on a project for years now with the goal of partnering with humans to fight climate change.”

The crowd released a collective exclamation while the members of the Alliance looked over the audience reassuringly.

The wolf continued, “The world is on a perilous path because of the warming climate. The more time that passes, the less time we have to avert disaster where our habitats are destroyed and our species dwindle into extinction. We in the animal kingdom can only do so much in the climate fight. The sole way to have any chance of success is to enlist the assistance of humans to slow down and ideally reverse global warming. We are pursuing any involvement with humans cautiously, but after decades of working on our own, it’s clear the beings who caused the conditions resulting in climate change must address it.” The Alliance members shook their heads in agreement.

“We have information and capabilities that humans don’t and working together is the only hope for saving ourselves and this planet as we know it.”

The gallery members chattered among themselves, surprised to hear of the Alliance’s decision to work with beings many viewed as enemies.

“Mission Command made contact with a human we believe can help us,” informed the wolf. The eyes of the Alliance and those in the audience all turned to Eliza. She immediately blushed and a ‘who, me?’ look came over her face. Bebop leaned into her for moral support.

The wolf went on, “The human who Mission Command has identified knew nothing of this mission, and we brought her here to fill her in on it now.”

Discord erupted in the audience and a badger moved toward the front of the gallery.

“May I ask a question?” he asked a number of times, each louder than the last in an effort to be heard over the attendees. Eventually the uproar settled and the wolf invited the badger to speak. He cleared his throat and said, “We’re concerned about a partnership with humans. They only care about their best interests and not ours. That’s how we ended up in this mess in the first place. Why should we waste any effort working with them now?”

The wolf replied, “The Alliance had the same concerns and we’ve discussed it every which way for quite some time. We kept coming back to the reality that the actions needed to slow the warming can only be done effectively and most impactfully by humans.”

A crow piped up from a rock above the gallery. “But what can we do to convince them to take action? They don’t even listen to other humans, much less to us.”

The elephant answered, “You’re absolutely right, humans are a challenge, and we don’t understand them. That’s why we believe the only way to get our message to them is through another human. We’ve tried everything we can think of on our end and have nothing to lose by giving this a shot.”

Consider supporting the World Wildlife Fund’s work to protect natural species.


Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the Carnegie-longlisted British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was 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, 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. 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 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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