Marissa Slaven and Michael Muntisov discuss their new thrillers

Two of our members, Marissa Slaven and Michael Muntisov, have both written about a near-future world suffering the effects of climate change. Even though Marissa lives in Canada and Mike in Australia, they were able to catch up over Zoom to talk about their books. Here’s an extract from their conversation.

MARISSA: You know, as I read your book, I had to smile whenever I came across some of the same details in your climate-changed world as mine.

MIKE: Me too! It felt like we had written companion pieces set at the same time but in different parts of America for slightly different audiences.

MARISSA: We should back up a bit. Why don’t you go first and give us a summary of your novel’s story.

MIKE: Okay. Court of the Grandchildren is set in 2050’s America. The climate is ruined and now the young want the old to pay.

The underlying story follows the journeys of the two main characters, 29-year-old Lily and 96-year-old David.

David has been called to appear before the Climate Court to judge whether his decisions of today bear any responsibility for the climate situation of this 2050’s world. That’s the climate part of the story. Artificial intelligence features as a major theme as well.

What about your story?

MARISSA: Code Blue is also set in the not-too-distant future where rising temperatures and sea levels have dramatically reshaped the planet. I wanted to write a book where the hero was a young woman who used her intelligence to save the world. I created 16-year-old Atlantic “Tic”.

She’s empathetic, hardworking and impulsive. She attends a boarding school whose focus is climate science. While there she discovers that her father’s death at sea doing research may be more complicated than it seemed. Not only that but her own research project suggests that life on Earth might be more precarious than anyone suspects.

But the main thing for me was having a young woman as the hero and taking the fight to climate change. That was the core of my idea. What about yours for Court of the Grandchildren?

MIKE: My motivation came from my failure to make any headway on the climate agenda through the use of science and information. So instead, I decided to tell a story which draws on emotions; one where interesting twists and turns are possible thanks to the potential of technology, especially artificial intelligence.

MARISSA: Yeah, there were quite a few twists I wasn’t expecting.

MIKE: Oh good! I’m glad you were surprised. And I have to say the clever way you started each of Code Blue’s chapters took me by surprise. Was there anything that surprised you about Code Blue?

MARISSA: I was very surprised to learn from my publisher that I had used the “F” word 13 times in Code Blue as I never ever swear in real life. I was also shocked when I did a podcast interview and the interviewer told me that Code Blue reminded him of the Harry Potter books. I quite literally didn’t know what to say!

MIKE: That’s quite a compliment!

MARISSA:   In Court of the Grandchildren, the reader is on edge as the judgment of your David character approaches. Have you given any thought as to how your children/grandchildren might judge you?

MIKE: My goal is to do the best that I can on climate action. That means leveraging my strengths to influence as many people and policies as possible. I think (fingers crossed) that my children and grandchildren will recognize that.

MARISSA: I hope my kids think the same of me.

MIKE: Which raises the question: “What does success look like for your book?”

Both of us independently answered that question in preparing for this conversation. I was bemused by our answers.

MARISSA: You said Court of the Grandchildren would be a success if it got in front of one thousand people and changed ten. That’s a low bar isn’t it?

MIKE: Wait on! You said 423 sales for Code Blue!

MARISSA: I suppose neither of us is very ambitious.

MIKE: Okay, well let’s multiply those numbers by ten! In any case, I think we recognise that influencing even a small number of people can make a difference.

MARISSA: I agree!

So, who do you most want to read Court of the Grandchildren?

MIKE: The people who won’t!

How about yours?

MARISSA: Hmmm….Oprah? Reese Witherspoon? I would be so happy for anyone to read and enjoy Code Blue. I think it does lend itself well to readers of all ages and especially people who might not know a lot about the climate crisis already.

MIKE: Reese Witherspoon…could she feature in a movie version of Code Blue?

MARISSA: Actually, I’ve thought quite a bit about that. I would love to see Lana Condor as Tic, Drew Barrymore as her mother, Harrison Ford as Uncle Al and Jude Law as Chris.

What about Court of the Grandchildren – the movie?

MIKE: Oh…I would probably cast Soairse Ronan as the 29-year-old Lily battling through an impossible dilemma. And for the aging former bureaucrat, David – there are quite a few candidates – Anthony Hopkins, Donald Sutherland, Alan Arkin, just to name a few.

MARISSA: Tell me what’s next for you after Court of the Grandchildren.

MIKE: Court of the Grandchildren doesn’t stop with the novel. I wrote a stage adaptation and, okay it’s not a movie, but The Magnetic Theatre in North Carolina performed a public virtual reading of the play this past April. They will perform it on stage in their 2022 season. I also maintain a website dedicated to the novel’s themes.

What are your plans?

MARISSA:  Code Red, the sequel to Code Blue will be released in July.

MIKE: Wow! Two books coming out within months of each other. That’s impressive!

MARISSA: Thanks Mike, and best of luck with your play too. Or should I say “Break a Leg!”

Marissa Slaven was inspired by her daughter to write Code Blue, an eco-fiction thriller, where a teenage girl and her friends battle climate change. Marissa took courses at Humber college where she honed her writing skills. In the process of writing the novel, Marissa taught herself about the climate crisis. She became a passionate climate activist and continues to both write and try to do her part to make the world a more sustainable place for all living things. Marissa loves interacting with her readers and speaking with young people about the environment. She recently completed Code Red, the sequel to Code Blue, and is working on a screenplay account of her great-uncle’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

More about Marissa at her website:

Mike’s professional expertise was in making drinking water safe. He was the editor of a non-fiction book on water treatment, sales proceeds of which were donated to Water Aid. After a global consulting career spanning 35 years, Mike finally got around to writing his first work of fiction, Court of the Grandchildren. Among Mike’s other interests are college basketball, film, and working with start-up entrepreneurs.

More about Mike at his website:

Young activists – to be encouraged! by Anthea Simmons

I am really proud to have written a book about young activists. The young are all too often dismissed as naïve and ill-informed, when they are often quite the reverse. Clear-sighted and unburdened by the baggage of political bias or tribalism or the potential drag of adult experience, they see the world with an energy and freshness which is pretty much humanity’s greatest hope. Of course, fostering this spirit has to be tempered with measures to keep them safe and to manage their expectations of what can be achieved in their ideal and possibly overly-impatient timescales, but engagement is what this planet needs and it needs it right now. So here’s a guide you can share with your young pupils and friends.

Activism basically means getting off your backside and doing something to try to make a difference. Many campaigns fail, though, because there is no clear goal, no ask. It’s really vital to work out what the objective is. If the goal is too big or too vague or too complicated, it will be hard to achieve and, therefore, dispiriting. An example of a noble but vague goal would be “I want to save the planet”. It’s lovely, but it’s a little bit ambitious! It’s worth taking a leaf out of Greta’s book.

She wanted to raise awareness of the climate crisis and she did that very simply at first with her solo protest and hand-painted sign. Her protest developed into an effort to get the Swedish government to prioritise action on the climate crisis. She then came to symbolise the voice of young people across the globe, expressing the anger and frustration her generation feels at the slow progress being made to tackle the issue. As a result, she got access to the most powerful politicians in the world.

A more modest goal might be to try to change the mind of someone who thinks climate change is not that important Converting people to the cause is a good goal to have. The next step might be to get some positive action in the community…a commitment to cut food waste or plant trees or leave verges unsprayed and un-mowed, for example

Persuading people to change their minds or to move from indifference to engagement is how we achieve a change in social permission. Social permission theory basically says that when enough people think that doing something is no longer socially acceptable – like drinking and driving or racism – then pressure builds in society to sanction that behaviour so that it is no longer acceptable.

As a nation, we are fairly passive when it comes to protest and this government is trying to quell what comparatively little dissent there is via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which has the potential to prevent peaceful protest. Contrast us with the French or the Germans, where large scale protest at social injustice and climate emergency is relatively commonplace. My own view is that we need to change the social permission around protest and embrace it as an important part of our struggle to get the climate change agenda the priority status it absolutely deserves.

The climate cause also encourages engagement with the political system in other ways. Maybe the local council or MP don’t seem to be doing anything about the crisis. It is possible to find out how an MP votes on climate issues here. Just because young people are not old enough to vote does not mean they cannot write to their MP.

If an MP does not seem to be acting in the environment’s best interests, a school or a class could get a petition together and get as many friends, family and neighbours as possible to sign it, asking the MP or the local councillors to vote in favour of laws/regulations that help rather than damage the planet. Keep on and on at them and ask them to come and talk to the school to explain themselves! Some constituencies are lucky to be represented by a pro-planet MP. Ask them to come and speak, too!

Actual letters are better than emails. It is best if an adult also signs to say that they are a constituent of the MP (MPs need to care about their voters if they want to keep their power)

Other things young people can do:

  • Form a group or join an existing group. There may well be a club at school already. Come up with a catchy name. Twin with a climate group in another country.
  • Make climate news a regular feature in assembly. Individuals can volunteer to be the school researcher and reporter!
  • Make artworks or musical instruments out of rubbish. Hold a concert and an exhibition to raise awareness. Run recycling/upcycling clubs, sharing outgrown clothes, toys, dvds etc and have a fashion show from upcycled clothing.
  • Talk to the school about holding a climate emergency awareness event. Maybe the school would support a Fridays for Future demonstration.
  • Make some placards. There’s no need for anything fancy. A piece of cardboard cut from a box is enough, but make sure that writing can be read at a distance. Use a thick marker or a dark paint.
  • Make the message clear, simple and from the heart. IT’S OUR FUTURE! NO PLANET B Be the solution, not the pollution Clean up your mess! Rhymes work well, because people remember them. Usually, the rule of three is the best one to follow: three words: We need Change Climate Justice NOW Evidence over Ignorance. There’s just something about three words that humans really like!

If activists hold an event it’s important to maximise the impact by contacting the local press, the regional and national TV and radio stations. Take pictures and make a video, but be careful to check that all children and young people filmed or photographed have given permission for their images to be used. Also be sure to demonstrate somewhere where lots of people will see what’s going on but which is also safe. Don’t demonstrate on a narrow pavement near a busy road, for example. If setting up a demo or stall outside a shop, make sure the owners don’t mind and be sure not to block their entrance. In fact, always be careful not to block entrances or roads. Get parents’ permission and tell the police. Chances are they’ll join you! Borrow a loud hailer (from school or the local sports club?) so that any speeches can be heard clearly. Borrow a hop-up from a friendly builder.

It’s crucial to be ready with some words to say in the event of an interview. I always think “What do I want this person to remember?” This makes me really focus on the message and not go babbling on! The other good rule is to : tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them!

I make a habit of wearing a badge or a piece of clothing that shows I care about the climate. It can start a conversation and help to find people who feel the same way. Students could make their own badges or make a design on a plain canvas bag or T-shirt.

If we get the chance to go on a march again, here are some top tips. Backpack! Water, comfortable shoes, sun cream, energy bars. Take some information about your group or campaign to share with other people. Make a big banner with a sheet from a charity shop and get friends to help carry it. When people wear something funny or eye-catching, the press will be more likely to film them. Again, be ready to say something if asked!

Praise friends and community if they do a good job! Create an online newsletter/blog to keep everyone updated and keep posting on social media.

Write to the local newspaper and MP to tell them about achievements and milestones. We all need good news stories.

Good luck!

Find out more about Anthea Simmons’ book Burning Sunlight here.

Anthea Simmons lives in Devon with her polydactyl cat, Caramac. After a successful career in the City and a spell of teaching, she finally knuckled down to write at the insistence of her son, Henry. She is the author of Share, The Best Best Baby, I’m Big Now, Lightning Mary and Burning Sunlight. She is editor in chief for online citizen journalism paper, West Country Bylines, and campaigns on a range of issues including electoral reform and rejoining the EU.

Climate News

The Last Bear downloadable student teaching resource [Bloomsbury]

Mark Rylance: arts should tell ‘love stories’ about nature to tackle climate crisis [Guardian]

A bad month for fossil funds: What happened when the courts and shareholders lost patience with Big Oil [DivestWMPF]

The Environmental Implications of the Return to the Office

Biden Suspends Drilling Leases in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge [NY Times]

School climate strikers urge boycott of Science Museum show over Shell deal [Guardian] – Sign the petition here

League Member Octavia Cade talks about the environment in fiction [Spotify]

Rachel Griffin talks about YA The Nature of Witches

Rachel Griffin talks about her debut novel, out now with Sourcefire Books.

Tell us about your new book.

The Nature of Witches is a young adult contemporary fantasy set in a world where witches have long maintained the climate but are starting to lose control. It follows Clara Densmore, an Everwitch whose rare magic is tied to every season, and she is the only witch powerful enough to stabilize the collapsing atmosphere. But her magic is able to seek out and target the people she cares for most, and when she falls in love with a spring witch, she must choose between her magic that the world desperately needs and the boy that she’s come to love.

How does climate change play into the plot?

The world is suffering from more and more extreme weather events, which is the backdrop of this story. When I began to imagine if there really were witches who could control the climate, I realized that there would be people who used them and their magic as a resource, pushing the Earth further than it was ever intended to go. And at some point, the Earth was going to start pushing back. That set the stage for Clara’s story.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

Most of my research revolved around learning more about weather and the atmosphere. I read books and did a ton of research online, but the best thing I did was become a certified weather spotter for the National Weather Service! I took a class they were offering at my local airport, and it was all about recognizing weather patterns and signs that extreme weather may be on the way. It was such a great way to learn about something that has fascinated me my entire life, and I wove a lot of what I learned into the magic system in The Nature of Witches.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

I read a lot of work that focuses on the wonder and awe of the natural world because I believe that by immersing ourselves in its magic, we become desperate to protect it. So from that end, I love the poems and essays of Mary Oliver, as well as Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

I’m currently making my way through All We Can Save, which is a fantastic collection of essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement.

And finally, I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m very excited for Joan He’s recent release, a young adult sci-fi novel called The Ones We’re Meant to Find about two sisters desperately trying to find each other in a climate-ravaged future.

Can you remember when your journey with climate activism started?

I have loved weather and nature since I was a little girl, and that fascination and awe followed me well into adulthood. I didn’t learn about the climate crisis until I was an adult, but I feel like my journey started years before then, as a little girl finding sanctuary in the trees and wonder in the storms.

Why is it so important for you personally to see climate change discussed in fiction?

Simply put, this is the only home that we have, and the Earth gives us so much. By including my love for the natural world in my book, I’m hoping that it inspires readers to want to give back to the Earth and protect it.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“I’ve had moments of despair and deep resentment. But then I stand outside and touch the earth, feel the magic in my fingertips, and understand that this is how it’s meant to be. The sun and stars conspired for me, and I am filled with gratitude.”

What message do you hope readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in climate activism?

More than anything, I hope The Nature of Witches evokes a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the natural world, because when we’re inspired by something, when we love something, we protect it.

I think the steps to take differ from person to person, because what works for one person may not work for another, but there are so many ways to help. I hope that readers seek out ways that work for them, because we can all help. Read. Research. Vote. Use your voice—all of it matters.

Rachel Griffin writes young adult novels inspired by the magic of the world around her. She is the author of the upcoming The Nature of Witches, releasing from Sourcebooks Fire on June 1, 2021, with a second standalone novel to follow in 2022. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Rachel has a deep love of nature, from the mountains to the ocean and all the towering evergreens in between. She adores moody skies and thunderstorms, and hopes more vampires settle down in her beloved state of Washington. On her path to writing novels, Rachel graduated from Seattle University with a Bachelor of Science in diagnostic ultrasound. She worked in healthcare for five years and taught ultrasound at her alma mater before making the switch to a small startup. She has been mentoring in Pitch Wars since 2017 and now writes full-time from her home in the Seattle area. When she isn’t writing, you can find her wandering the PNW, reading by the fire, or drinking copious amounts of coffee and tea. She lives with her husband, small dog, and growing collection of houseplants.

Weather as Antagonist in Climate Fiction by Sim Kern

It’s been raining all week here in Houston, which is to say, I haven’t been sleeping. For most of my life, I loved the sound of a thunderstorm lulling me to sleep. But after surviving more floods, tropical storms, and hurricanes than I can count on both hands, the sound of thunder now triggers anxiety. I wake in the middle of the night to check the back door, feeling the tiles in the dark with my bare feet to make sure that water isn’t slipping inside. If the rain is hammering the roof, I’ll crack the front door and peek out at the bayou, two blocks away, to make sure it hasn’t escaped its banks.

Houston is one of many Gulf Coast cities already traumatized by climate-changed weather. For me, climate change feels viscerally real, as each summer stretches longer, breaking record after record for killing heat. Hurricanes spin up faster and stronger, so we barely get a break between tracking the storms that might just destroy our lives. For many Gulf Coast residents, climate change isn’t some future abstraction, it’s the dark water that’s already crossed our doorsteps, spilled into our homes, damaging the literal foundations of our lives.

I imagine folks out West go through similar traumas with each wildfire season.

Despite all the devastation Houstonians have already faced, our city and state leaders still largely choose to bury their heads in the sand on climate preparedness. We’re coming up on the anniversary of Hurricane Ike this summer—a narrow miss, that storm. If Ike had come ashore just a few dozen miles to the West, a 20-foot storm surge would have come up the Houston Ship Channel, crashing into the largest concentration of petrochemical industry in the country. The resulting human and environmental toll is staggering to consider. And yet thirteen years later, we have yet to build the “Ike Dike” or barrier islands that would protect Houston from a direct hit from a major hurricane. It’s also nearly four years since Hurricane Harvey, when two dams west of the city nearly failed, which would have submerged most of the city in a flooding event even more fatal than Hurricane Katrina. Repairs to those dams are yet to be completed. As the most populous Gulf Coast city, at sea level, and with no significant hurricane preparation underway, Houston exists on borrowed time, protected only by magical thinking.

For those of us who are climate realists—and stuck here, due to family, jobs, or economic circumstances—the inaction of our leaders is unbearably frustrating.

That frustration fueled my debut novella, Depart, Depart! I wanted climate-deniers near and far to share the fears that keep me wide-awake on rainy nights. I destroyed Houston in fiction, hoping that my little book might spur someone to join the fight against climate change, and maybe help save our city in the real world.

In Depart, Depart!, Hurricane Martha serves not just as a plot device, but as an antagonist. Tropical storms have names, bodies, and moods. We track their movements, obsess over their behavior, curse them, fear them, and joke at their expense, and they are very much characters in our lives.

For most of Noah’s friends, Martha is an excuse to throw a hurricane party. That’s a pretty common response among 20-somethings along the Gulf Coast. But for Noah Mishner, the approaching storm sparks an intergenerational terror, manifesting in cryptic warnings from his ancestor’s ghost. During a disaster, trauma tends to get tangled up like that.

As a trans, Jewish man, trying to survive in a basketball arena-turned-climate-shelter, Noah’s fears of the storm are quickly overtaken by his fear of his fellow Texans. As the storm dissipates, Hurricane Martha’s role as antagonist fades, and the real threat emerges—Noah’s neighbors, with all their bigotries, hatreds, and guns. Add an intensifying climate crisis, with wildfires, drought, and food shortages, and violence seems sure to follow.  In a corner of the shelter, near the only gender neutral restroom, Noah and a found family of other trans folks try to forge a community that will weather this brewing crisis.

I wish that I could say that the fears that took shape in Depart, Depart! seem unrealistic now, four years after Harvey. But as this Texas legislative session comes to a close, they seem more relevant than ever. Permitless carry passed, so that guns will be more omnipresent and unregulated than ever.  Thanks to the incredible efforts of trans activists (many of them children), none of the thirteen bills attacking trans people passed this session. However, criminalizing trans kids remains a top priority of the GOP, as the governor is considering a special session to continue the onslaught. Efforts to reign in petrochemical pollutants failed to get a vote, while the “right” to burn natural gas will be enshrined in law. In the name of “life,” the legislature banned abortion past six weeks, the time after which when 90% of abortions in the state occur. And yet no action was taken on climate change, which threatens the very continuation of life on earth.

This agenda doesn’t reflect the priorities of most Texans, only of a powerful, vocal minority. For example, only 26% of Texans think permitless gun carry is a good idea, and yet this law will now endanger all our lives. Outrageously gerrymandered districts and racist voting laws disenfranchise millions of Texas voters, particularly in Black and Latine communities. And a new, sweeping election bill is set to make it even harder to vote for the millions of Texans who support things like LGBTQ+ rights, climate action, and sensible gun laws.

So don’t get me wrong, I love Houstonians. Like the climate refugees in Depart, Depart!, we’re all just trying to survive, keep our families happy, and stay above floodwaters. We’re a resilient bunch, as you have to be, living on the Gulf Coast in the 2020’s. Hurricanes can be terrifying antagonists. But by a longshot, it’s my neighbors—the ones who worship bigotry, guns, and petrochemicals—who scare me the most. 

You can learn more about Depart, Depart! here

Sim Kern is a speculative fiction writer, exploring intersections of climate change, queerness, and social justice. Their quiet horror novella Depart, Depart! was released in September 2020 from Stelliform Press. Sim also has recently published short stories in Metaphorosis, The Colored Lens, and Wizards in Space Magazine. They are represented by Mariah Nichols of the D4EO Literary Agency for their YA novel, Sand and Swarm. Sim attended Oberlin College for a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. Afterwards, they moved to Houston, where they spent ten years teaching English to middle and high schoolers. Following the birth of their kid, they began pursuing a career in writing. They live near the bayou with their husband, toddler, and two very good dogs.

Climate News

Chance of temporarily reaching 1.5C in warming is rising, WMO says [FT]

Goldsmiths Press Accepting Submissions for New SF Imprint

Great Science Share for Schools – resources for educators [University of Manchester]

Meet 13 Asian and Asian Diasporic Nature and Environment Writers [Sierra Club]

ExxonMobil and Chevron suffer shareholder rebellions over climate [The Guardian]

A ‘choose your own adventure’ based on Annemarie Allan’s novel ‘Breaker’

Cover reveal for Green Rising by Lauren James (league founder)

Fiona Barker talks about her new picture book

Mary Woodbury interviews Fiona Barker about her new picture book Setsuko and the Song of the Sea, out now.

I run, an exploration of world eco-fiction, which includes a database of hundreds of novels about humanity’s impact on our natural world, including the omnipresent climate disruption. Being a mother and aunt, I have often wondered how climate change will affect the next generations. It’s an interest that informs my writing and reading, and life’s work. My love for the great outdoors began with childhood, when my parents were forever showing us the world beyond walls, whether it was climbing the Appalachian hills in Eastern Kentucky, whenever we visited my mammaw and pappaw, or horseback riding in the desert when we visited relatives in Arizona. Dad used to take us four kids white-water rafting on the Wolf River when we got a little older, and when we moved to the Chicago area, that meant hiking the nearby woods and skiing every winter. I’m glad for this upbringing and still recall how I would constantly off lights and unused electricity to save energy when I was a teenager, when my activist self burgeoned as I knew we had to protect the planet around us.

When I was in college I wrote a story about a grade-school aged girl whose family moved from Chicago to northern Wisconsin. The girl had a hard time at first, because it was challenging to become accepted in her new community. She began noting the beautiful forest and creeks around her and imagined how they would have been in the old days. Using resources found around the property surrounding her new house, she built a wigwam and learned about the natural wilds of her area. I eventually gave the story to the kids in our family, and most recently a great-niece read it and loved it.

Later, after I began, I was struck by something I read in Edan Lepucki’s short story “There’s No Place Like Home.” I talked with Edan back then, and we discussed how youth were in a stuck generation. By then, so many real-life and literary heroes of the “youngest generations” had rocked the world, including Vanessa Nakate, Greta Thunberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Bana Alabed, and Emma Gonzales. I thought it only fitting to add a new spotlight feature at Dragonfly, called Turning the Tide: The Youngest Generation, where each month I spotlight an article, review, or book geared toward children, teens, or young adult audiences.

Earlier this year I also published the novella Bird Song (pen: Clara Hume) a story about a young woman named Thelsie, from Chicago, who wakes up on a mysterious island and tries to figure out her surroundings. She meets two Greek sirens and a shipwrecked sailor as well as her mother, who had died in the previous year. Part eco-horror, part new myth, part romance, this novella is also a parable for climate change, and similar to my real-life experience, looks at ecological destruction resulting in climate change as something that started long ago.

My interests in how younger people are dealing with ecological destruction that they had no part in is one of the reasons I wanted to interview Fiona Barker about her beautifully illustrated Setsuko and the Song of the Sea. Being a big fan of Moana, I was thrilled to discover Setsuko–only Moana was about a young woman fighting against a curse from a demigod, while Setsuko is about a young girl who, like Moana, is drawn to the sea but learns about advocacy against ocean destruction. She meets a whale whose stories and songs inspire her to think about the beauty of the ocean and the threats that marine life faces. While the whale’s song appeals to her emotionally, she also discovers the amount of plastic waste found in the ocean, which inspires action.

I got the wonderful opportunity to chat with Fiona about her new children’s story.

Mary: Can you explain the inspiration behind Setsuko and the Song of the Sea?

Fiona: I think I’ve always been reasonably green. As a child 40 years ago I used to tour our village with my dad and a wheelbarrow collecting newspapers to recycle. But what really changed things was doing the Marine Conservation Society #PlasticFreeJuly where the challenge was to cut out a source of single use plastic everyday for a month. I learned a huge amount and have completely changed our whole family’s shopping habits and blog about my efforts to reduce our waste for Less Plastic UK. It got me thinking about consumption and waste in general.

Then I met Howard Gray, who illustrated my picture book Danny and the Dream Dog (Tiny Tree Children’s Books). I discovered he was a marine biologist, and I knew I had to write a story about the sea for him to illustrate because he’s a genius at drawing the sea. I was inspired to feature Setsuko because I had seen a documentary about the amazing Ama, female free divers. They’re incredible women who dive for shellfish without diving equipment, but their way of life is under threat. I knew I had to include an Ama in my story, and Setsuko was born. I’m absolutely thrilled that a percentage of the profit from sales of the book will go towards supporting the work of the Marine Conservation Society.

Mary: What kinds of climate change themes does your newest book have?

Fiona: My story is about respecting the world we live in. Specifically it’s about ocean plastic but also bigger themes of consumption and waste.

Mary: You have written other ecologically aware picture books for children. What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

Fiona: I was thrilled at the end of 2020 to win the illustrated book for children category of the Green Stories Writing competition with my story “The Doo-Da Hoo-Ha,” which addresses reducing waste at source by consuming less. I also self-published a picture book in 2016 called “Amelie and the Great Outdoors,” which encourages readers to get outside and engage with the natural world.

Mary: You’re a mother, too. What worries you about our future when it comes to our children?

Everything. In the west especially, we are living outside our means, consuming far more than our planet can sustainably provide. On a global level, climate change and global warming are the biggest threats of course. Just today on the radio I heard that European climate scientists have announced that 2020 equalled 2016 as the warmest year on record. The acceleration of thawing in permafrost in the Arctic Circle is a huge time bomb. Locally, I am obsessed with litter and run 3-4 times a week with a litter picker and bag, collecting it. Our children deserve to walk streets that are clean without having to step over cans, plastic bottles and, at the moment, discarded facemasks and gloves. 

Mary: How do you think fiction, and, in your case, illustrated fiction, can help?

Fiona: Obviously, it’s about informing and educating children and parents about the issues but also, importantly, about solutions that they have direct control over.

Fiona Barker is the author of picture books Setsuko and the Song of the Sea and Danny and the Dream Dog, illustrated by artist and marine biologist Howard Gray. When not writing picture books, she can be found out plogging and occasionally blogging about litter and living a life less plastic.

Mary Woodbury (pen name Clara Hume) graduated with BAs in English and anthropology at Purdue University. She grew up in the United States, where her parents introduced her at an early age to hiking, climbing mountains, horseback riding, canoeing, white-water rafting, and camping—filling her with a deep respect for the wilderness. She now lives in Nova Scotia with her partner and two cats. As a curator at, a site that explores world eco-fiction, she has interviewed several award-winning authors and built a database of over 800 novels. She also founded Moon Willow Press in 2009 and its newest imprint Dragonfly Publishing.

Climate Change in the News

UK students sue government over human rights impact of climate crisis [Guardian]

League member Hannah Gold in conversation with Lyndsey Croal [YouTube]

Children’s Fiction and the Climate Crisis – Sarah Odedina interviews Ele Fountain, Hannah Gold and Piers Torday with Tales on Moon Lane

Area of forests the size of France has regrown worldwide since 2000 [Sky News]

‘Love our bogs’: UK should harness all its landscapes in fight for climate [Guardian]

Farmers too busy surviving to act on climate change

Writing about politics for kids – how much can they understand? by Tom Huddleston

All art is political – even children’s books. Especially children’s books.

Fairy tales cover everything from social satire (The Emperor’s New Clothes) to the politics of adolescence (Little Red Riding Hood). The Gruffalo explores our mistrust of the other. Burglar Bill evinces sympathy for the criminal underclass. And as readers get older, the parallels become even more direct: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials mounts an angry critique of the Catholic church; Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books remorselessly lampoon class hierarchies; while my own FloodWorld trilogy explores inequality, exploitation and of course climate change in the guise of a fast-paced action adventure.

Like Pullman, Reeve and countless other authors before us, I’ve never felt the need to tone any of these themes down simply because the stories are aimed at younger readers. In fact, the opposite might be true: issues like climate change, inequality and oppression are part of the world around us, they’re not going away any time soon, however much we’d like them to. It’s our duty (and our privilege) as authors to bring them out into the light and get kids thinking about them – not as horrors to be feared, but as problems to be faced, understood and, if possible, overcome.

In FloodWorld, my young heroes Kara and Joe have grown up in the waterlogged slums of future London, doing whatever they can to get by – working dangerous and illegal jobs, existing on the margins of society. They’re exploited by those with more power, forced to fend for themselves in a tough, unfair society. But they’re not downtrodden: they’re brave, resourceful and persistent, they refuse to let the world beat them. And ultimately, through their struggles and their activism they’re able to help bring about a better world not just for themselves, but for everyone around them.

And of course there’s plenty of action and intrigue to move the story forward. For me, this is absolutely key: the story can never be allowed to let up, sweeping the characters and the reader along so rapidly that the serious stuff never starts feeling like a chore. So while my post-climate-change future may be tough and unforgiving, it’s always exciting too – there’s peril around every corner, this is a world that readers will hopefully want to keep exploring.

There are some who’d argue that taking this kind of blockbuster approach to serious issues serves to undermine the gravity of the problem – that I run the risk of making this tide-ravaged future seem like a prospect to be excited about, rather than one to be dreaded. And it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, it’s not a question to be taken lightly. But my response would be: what’s the alternative? To write a dry, doom-laden treatise on the perils of ecological disaster and widespread inequality that no child would ever want to read? Or to write a goofy, empty-headed adventure story with no deeper intention than blowing stuff up? For me, it’s about striking a balance, telling a rip-roaring story without ever letting the issues slip out of sight. I’m sure I haven’t always been successful – but that’s for the reader to decide.

Of course, I’m defining politics in quite loose terms here – social politics, climate politics, class politics. When it comes to governmental politics – the sort of thing the average young reader might recognise as ‘politics’, with grey-faced men and women in formal dress arguing about tax policy, we’re in slightly different territory. Personally, I probably wouldn’t attempt to write a children’s book about the day-to-day goings on in Westminster or the behind-the-scenes machinations at the East Byfleet by-election. But that doesn’t for a moment mean that another author couldn’t write either of those stories, and make them entertaining, approachable and fun.

There’s nothing inherent about politics that kids can’t get to grips with, provided they’re offered relatable characters in intriguing situations, and kept entertained. With any luck, they’ll gain a wider, more empathetic perspective on the world they live in, and a deeper understanding of the issues facing it.

FloodWorld and its sequel DustRoad are available now from Nosy Crow Books. The third and final book in the trilogy is set to follow later in 2021.

Tom Huddleston is a writer, musician and film journalist best known for his FLOODWORLD series of futuristic, climate-themed adventure stories. He currently lives in London. Tom is the author of several books for children including instalments in the STAR WARS: ADVENTURES IN WILD SPACE and WARHAMMER ADVENTURES series. Published in 2019 by Nosy Crow Books, his novel FLOODWORLD combines thrilling action with themes of ecological disaster and social inequality, and was followed in 2020 by a powerful sequel, DUSTROAD.

Ele Fountain talks about MG novel Melt

Ele Fountain talks about her new Middle Grade release Melt, which is out now with Pushkin Press.

Melt is an Arctic adventure. It’s the story of two teenagers from very different backgrounds. When their worlds collide on the melting ice, friendship, courage, and ancient knowledge are what they must rely on to survive. 

How does climate change play into the plot?

The moods and power of the weather in Melt, almost transform it into the role of ‘character’ within the story. It is also holds the key to a major ‘twist’!

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I researched seasonal sea ice, Inuit stories and traditions, Arctic flora and fauna. I also became briefly expert in how far a snowmobile can travel on a single tank of fuel, and how to fly a light aircraft – and the best way to cook Bannock bread.

What approach did you take to talking about complicated topics, either political or scientific, for younger readers?

Kids notice everything – far more than we often prefer to acknowledge. They know something about most big, complicated topics. Books can help to piece those fragments of information together. They can offer a safe framework within which to explore and question big topics, something solid which can be revisited or discussed with others if they choose.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change?

Breathe by Sarah Crossan and The Last Wild by Piers Torday

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

When I moved to Ethiopia, the country was experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades, followed by some of the worst flooding. The human cost, the failed crops, the loss of livestock and wildlife were evident in both country and city. The nature of climate change – not just as global warming, but as climate chaos – truly hit me for the first time.

Why is it so important for you personally to see the environment discussed in fiction?

Fiction can provide a context and a narrative for subjects which may otherwise feel more abstract.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

The bonds which connect people and nature are beginning to fray. Something precious beyond imagining, is coming apart.

What message do you hope your young readers will take away from your work? What steps would you like them to take to be more involved in environmental activism?

That you’re never too young to have opinions about big issues. You’re never too young to make a difference. That the small actions of many can achieve more than a few grand gestures by those in power.

You can find out more about Melt here.

Ele Fountain worked as an editor in children’s publishing where she was responsible for launching and nurturing the careers of many prize-winning and bestselling authors. She lived in Addis Ababa for several years, where she wrote Boy 87, her debut novel. It won four awards and was nominated for nine more, including Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Her second novel LOST published to critical acclaim earlier this year.

Where to Place Climate Change in Fiction: Background or Centre Stage? by Anne Charnock

During lockdown, I have revised a story-in-progress to take account of our COVID-19 pandemic, and I know I have not been alone in doing so. I have shifted the setting of my novel to a time, post-pandemic, when my characters are resuming their ‘normal’ lives. The pandemic is still in their thoughts, suppressed for the most part, but breaking through at unexpected moments. It struck me, while making these revisions, that the pandemic and climate catastrophe, despite occurring on different timescales, share the key characteristic of being global emergencies, affecting everyone, wherever we live.

Amitav Ghosh states in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable that climate change evokes a sense of the uncanny. “No other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us.” This is exactly how we feel during this pandemic. And in both emergencies, the people worst affected are those with least room for manoeuvre, whose livelihoods are insecure, who cannot spend their way out of a crisis. During today’s manifestations of our climate crisis—from wildfires to floods—we have witnessed that many people cannot adapt to a hotter/wetter/stormier world. They cannot buy a property on higher ground, or afford air-conditioning, or legally emigrate to a kinder climate, or… Well, the list is long. Many people will stay put, for a lack of options, and adapt as best they can.

During lockdown, hoping to gain an insight into how writers respond to extraordinary events, I read The Love-charm of Bombs—Lara Feigel’s account of writers living in London during the Second World War. She describes the war-time experiences that informed Henry Green’s Caught, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. For these authors the cataclysm of war and the blitz took centre stage in these works of fiction, enriched with autobiographical detail. The reader is placed inside the blitz with falling masonry, and incendiary bombs falling in the street.

I also read A Month in the Country by J L Carr, winner of the 1980 Guardian Fiction Prize. This tells the story of a soldier demobbed from the First World War who accepts an art commission to restore a church fresco in rural Yorkshire. The character’s wartime experience stays in the background, but it’s painfully clear to the reader that he is suffering from shell shock, and his world has changed irrevocably.

So, centre-stage or background? Where should we place climate change when we write fiction?

Both, I would say, can work brilliantly. But it’s a choice we make at the outset. I’ve been writing fiction around the subject of climate change for twenty years. In two of my novels, the climate references sit in the background since the novels are tackling other subjects primarily—feminist themes in one case (Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind), and the role of future reproductive technologies (Dreams Before the Start of Time) in the other. Climate had to enter the mix, I decided, because both novels are set in the near-future. How could I inhabit the future without depicting the now-inevitable environmental and ecological changes? I couldn’t, And, more to the point, I would not want to.

By contrast, in my most recent novel, Bridge 108, I imagine a post-Brexit England later in the 21st century, when soaring temperatures and wildfires around the Mediterranean Rim are forcing people to migrate north from southern Europe. This novel is set in the same world as my debut, A Calculated Life, in which the north west of England, known today for its high rainfall and damp climate, has become a region of citrus and olive groves. In Bridge 108, I follow a young climate refugee who leaves Spain, becomes separated from his mother, and is trafficked to England where he works as a modern-day slave. Climate catastrophe is therefore the motor for this novel, but the wildfires and drought happen off-stage, visited in flashbacks.

I chose to focus the storylines in Bridge 108 on how state institutions and unscrupulous citizens are exploiting the refugees, and how the climate catastrophe affects different strata in society. Some people are coping just fine, whereas others at the bottom of the economic pile are struggling. And in order to portray these diverse experiences, I opted for a mosaic form, with multiple voices, which conveys the notion that individuals can be both victim and oppressor.

I am fascinated by the range of literary approaches to our shifting climate. An early classic, which I read many years ago, is J G Ballard’s The Drowned World, which depicts a climate endgame. Sea levels have risen, London has drowned. More recent examples of similarly dystopian endgames include Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which describes the survival spirit of people living in a part-submerged Manhattan. Taking a different tack in The Ministry for the Future, Robinson opens the novel with a visceral depiction of a great Indian heat wave in which 20 million people die. What follows is the story of a new United Nations organisation, The Ministry for the Future, which fights on multiple fronts to reduce carbon emissions.

Climate change takes centre stage in these novels, as it does in John Lanchester’s The Wall, Vicki Jarrett’s Always North, Cynan Jones’ Stillicide and Omar El Akkad’s American War, to name a few.

However, I also find myself drawn to novels that take a more oblique approach. The Inland Sea (2020) by Madeleine Watts is set in 2013 and draws a parallel between the protagonist’s self-destructive tendencies and our self destruction as a species regarding climate catastrophe. The Last Migration (2021) by Charlotte McConaghy merges eco-fiction with a psychological mystery as the protagonist tracks the migration of Arctic terns, paralleled by her own tendency to take flight, to move on, an instinct to leave people behind. And in Ghost Species by James Bradley, we encounter a remote and secretive research centre where scientists are reverse-engineering and resurrecting extinct species, including a Neanderthal child, against a backdrop of encroaching wildfires.

And perhaps a less obvious example of climate change fiction is Sarah Moss’s Summerwater set in a Scottish holiday park, with rain lashing throughout the novel, with the suggestion that even for Scotland the rain is worse than it ought to be.

These novels add to a growing body of fiction that relates to climate—from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, and Richard Powers’ The Overstory,  Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, and Helen Marshall’s The Migration (which brings together both climate change and a pandemic).

There’s no right or wrong here. Each writer assesses their writing strengths and deploys them to best use, as we each embrace the responsibility of addressing this existential threat in our own small way, while also attempting to engage and entertain the reader.

You can find out more about Bridge 108 here.

Anne Charnock is the author of Dreams Before the Start of Time, winner of the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award. The Guardian featured Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind in “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015.” Anne’s novella, The Enclave, won the 2017 British Science Fiction Association Award for Short Fiction. And her latest novel is Bridge 108 (2020). Anne’s writing career began in journalism, and her articles appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune and Geographical. She studied environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, and holds an MA in fine art from The Manchester School of Art. She was active for over ten years in the Ashton Hayes Going Carbon Neutral Project in Cheshire, before moving to the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

Anthea Simmons talks about YA novel BURNING SUNLIGHT

Anthea Simmons talks about her new release Burning Sunlight, a climate change YA novel out this month with Anderson Press about teenage activists.

How do themes of the environment play into your plot and the lives of your protagonists?

The environment is absolutely front and centre in Burning Sunlight. It is the issue which brings Zaynab and Lucas together, causes tensions and conflict between Zaynab and her father and Zaynab and her head teacher. It drives the entire plot and the excitement and danger that goes with it.

When did you get involved in climate-activism, and when did you decide to incorporate it into fiction? 

I’ve been involved in campaigning for access to opportunity for minority groups and, over the last four years, helping to lead a large grassroots group attempting to stop Brexit through democratic means.

I could see that Brexit was a licence to follow the Trump model and start trashing environmental protections and food standards and reneging on emission reduction promises, so in that respect I’ve been involved in climate-activism indirectly.

I attended one of the big Climate Strike demos in Exeter and saw the army of passionate, committed kids with their heartfelt, hard-hitting banners and placards. I could identify with their single-mindedness. I am a pretty driven, outspoken and impatient person and don’t believe in sitting on the sidelines. Apathy and passivity are the enemies of truth and democracy. I don’t ever want to feel that I didn’t try everything, do everything I reasonably could. That’s how it is for Greta and the other climate champions and I, in my smaller way, am like them when it comes to campaigning.

I decided to write a story about young activists after that march and I chose to have my heroine, Zaynab, come from a country that is already being hit hard by climate change and the impact of what we do in the West.

Why did you choose to write about climate change? What other themes intersect with climate-change within your book?

When you hear young people say that they find it hard to plan their futures when they do not think the planet can survive or that they would not dream of having kids of their own because Earth is trashed, you have to speak out and to find a way to celebrate and champion the young people who are trying to make a difference.

By having Zaynab come from Somaliland, I was able to tackle some other issues that matter to me, too. Racism, for example. Do you remember that photo of a group of young climate change activists taken at Davos and cropped by the newspapers to exclude Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, leaving only the Europeans? That horrified me, so Zaynab is a young person of colour and a Muslim and from a part of the world people know very little about. She also represents women and children who suffer disproportionately from the impact of the climate crisis.

The novel also deals with grief, bereavement and the challenges of leadership, of motivating others.

What do you hope readers walk away with after reading your book, especially in regards to climate change?

I hope it makes them want to do something or to do more. I hope it helps them to put the need for action, however small, on the agenda in their homes and schools and with their friends. Activism can be very lonely, because not everyone has the guts or the energy or is prepared to commit to the same degree. Your own commitment can make other people feel as though they are failing, or just put them off. It’s a lesson Zaynab has to learn. Not everyone can go at her pace or be as brave or speak in public or inspire others as she does, but everyone who wants to can make a difference. Lucas, for example, is quiet and shy, but he grows in confidence and also acts as a check on Zaynab when her zeal could backfire. 

It’s not all deadly serious, though! They do have a laugh, too! And, without spoiling the plot, they have a pretty hairy time of it once they decide to thwart a greenwashing scandal. I found it exciting to write, so I hope people find it exciting to read!

What are your hopes from other climate-fiction books that appear in literature?

That more kids and young people are engaged and mobilised in the campaign and that their pressure is felt by parents and older generations and that pressure builds so that politicians and corporations deliver on their promises. There is no planet B. This is it. Our house is on fire and we are running out of time.

Anthea Simmons lives in Devon with her polydactyl cat, Caramac. After a successful career in the City and a spell of teaching, she finally knuckled down to write at the insistence of her son, Henry. She is the author of Share, The Best Best Baby, I’m Big Now, Lightning Mary and Burning Sunlight. She is editor in chief for online citizen journalism paper, West Country Bylines, and campaigns on a range of issues including electoral reform and rejoining the EU.

Climate Change in the News

Climate Change and Fiction Zoom panel with League members Julie Carrick Dalton  and Angie Hockman – 6th May with Books and Books @ the Studios

Jury acquits Extinction Rebellion protesters despite ‘no defence in law’ [The Guardian] – Six Extinction Rebellion protesters have been cleared of causing criminal damage to Shell’s London headquarters despite the judge directing jurors that they had no defence in law, and even if they thought the protesters were “morally justified”, it did not provide them with a lawful excuse to commit criminal damage. But the jury of seven women and five men took seven hours and four minutes to acquit them of both charges. Before reaching their verdicts, the jury had asked to see a copy of the oath they took when they were sworn in. Thanking jurors for their “care and attention”, the judge said: “This has been an unusual case.”

MI6 ‘green spying’ on biggest polluters to ensure nations keep climate change promises [Sky News]

Wealthy nations ‘failing to help developing world tackle climate crisis’ [The Guardian]

Climate change: Net-zero cannot be achieved by planting a few trees or keeping lights switched off a bit more [Sky News]

Teaching Resource: Worksheet for The Stone Weta

The Stone Wētā by Octavia Wade is a dark, near future thriller that follows a group of female scientists. These scientists are part of a secret network which aims to gather and share scientific information regarding climate change. The scientists must avoid detection by their respective governments or face dire consequences.

The members of the secret network know little about each other but they all share a common goal, to research and share information about climate change in societies that ignore, deny, or prosecute climate change activism. Each character faces their own dangers throughout the book. Political forces attempt to uncover their identities, stop their research, and even assassinate them. 

The Stone Wētā explores the importance of science and politics co-operating to tackle issues brought on by climate change. It highlights the essentialness of policy-making in accordance with accurate data and the political obstacles faced in enacting the strategies needed to combat climate change. Octavia Wade makes it clear that as long as climate change science is muted, economic and social policies will continue to ignore the growing issue.

The following worksheet is meant to guide classroom discussion surrounding the impact that governments and policy have on science (and vice versa). I suggest that it be used in a high school social studies, science class, and/or a university setting. The questions are age inappropriate for younger audiences but could be tweaked for discussions in a mature junior high class. 

Happy teaching!

Marina Ekkel

You can download a PDF of the worksheet here, or read the questions below.

Learning Objective – Discuss and understand the impact that politics and society have on science.
1) The Stone Weta follows a group of scientists who are forced into hiding because of their scientific discoveries concerning climate change. Scientists who have made breakthroughs that go against societal norms have often been persecuted and/or isolated. Galileo, for example, was forced into house arrest by the catholoic church for writing that the earth revolved around the sun (it was strongly believed that the earth was the centre of the universe at this time). Which other scientists were punished or isolated for their discoveries and/or writings? Why?
2) If you discovered a major scientific breakthrough, that went against the norms of society (or even the law) would you share it with others at the risk of being persecuted? Why or why not?
3) What are the dangers of keeping major scientific discoveries a secret?
4) Is there a specific case where it would be beneficial to keep a scientific discovery a secret? Why or why not?
5) What is an example of a policy and/or law responding to an issue raised by climate science? What was the outcome of this law?
6) What challenges are policy-makers faced with when enacting environmental legislation to help combat climate change?
7) What are the dangers of enforcing laws and policies based on bad (or wrong) science?