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 Dragonfly.eco, 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 Dragonfly.eco, 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 Dragonfly.eco, 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?

Rewilding and our connections with the natural world by Nicola Penfold

My first book Where The World Turns Wild came out in February last year, just as the COVID-19 crisis was building. Readers contacted me to say how struck they were by eerie parallels with the dystopian nightmare we were all living through: the virus there wasn’t (then) a vaccine for; the locked down cities; the (brief, it turned out) breathing space the natural world had been given from our carbon-spewing cars and planes.

In the UK, it was a record-breaking sunny and dry spring, and one of the few things we could still do was take daily walks for essential exercise. We sought out places that brought us comfort: parks, rivers, woodlands, beaches (for those lucky enough to live within walking distance of the sea). There’s a whole host of reasons why and how the natural world is good for us (anyone interested in the data should read the influential, and beautiful, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild by Lucy Jones). Most of us didn’t need the evidence, we knew it instinctively. COVID had made us worried and sad and lonely, and we knew the wild spaces would make us feel better.

Did the birds really sing louder last spring, or did we just notice it more, without the roar of traffic and the daily grind? Lots of people said (often guiltily, acknowledging the horrible death toll and the horrendous stories coming out of the COVID wards) that it was nice to slow down. It was nice to have the chance to discover local green spots and learn our environments better. We felt reconnected to the natural world.

At least that’s the story we’ve told ourselves. There were also many for whom it was the opposite – people stuck at home all day, with vastly increased screen time. Playgrounds were shut. Children were told off for playing outside. It wasn’t nature rambles all round, and there was an uneasy tension between those who lived close to local beauty spots and wished, understandably, to keep outsiders out, and those from grey, urban places who just wanted a couple of hours respite in the wild.

When writing Where the World Turns Wild a few years ago, in my innocent, ignorant pre-pandemic state, I was just hungry for a new and exciting landscape to explore. The disease in my book (carried by ticks, too mutable for a vaccine) was just a plot device. It was like the princess pricking her finger in Sleeping Beauty and everyone sleeping for a hundred years. The disease allowed me to imagine a world with the humans taken out for a while. Because what I really wanted to write about was rewilding.

We hear the word all the time now – rewilding our gardens, our parks, our balconies, our road verges. There is of course an actual defined meaning too. A bigger, more scientific meaning that defines a progressive approach to conservation. Rewilding Britain says rewilding is “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.”

Most rewilding advocates take care to emphasise the role of people. Rewilding isn’t just what’s good for our landscapes, to help mitigate the huge climate and biodiversity crisis we are facing, it’s what’s good for us too.

Rewilding Britain talks about sustainable futures, jobs, communities, tourism. It’s also about a state of mind and a way of living – living wilder, our senses more fully engaged, more connected to our hunter-gatherer past. This desire for a wilder existence is compellingly described in George Monbiot’s Feral, first published in 2013, and a seminal text on rewilding. Rewilding, Monbiot writes, is not just about reducing floods and erosion and stopping the spread of disease (COVID-19 wasn’t the first virus caused by the pressure humans put on the natural world, and won’t be the last). Monbiot writes about “the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water… It is the sense that without these animals the ecosystem is lopsided, abridged, dysfunctional.”

This is the kind of landscape I wanted to write about. Something vast and unexplored, with secrets corners and unexpected encounters. Something so wild it could be dangerous. And I didn’t want to have to make the setting the Amazon rainforest or the Serengeti or some other place I’d never been. I wanted to write about landscapes close and familiar to me, but make them wilder. Like going back in time, except I didn’t go back, I went forward instead. Fifty years after humans have been locked up in cities, shut away from the natural world.

Nature has taken care of itself.

My characters meet lynx and wolves (released from old wildlife parks). But even more common creatures like wood pigeons, rabbits, squirrels, are more thrilling in the un-sanitised wild world of my book. Juniper and Bear, a sister and a brother, see everything with fresh eyes, because they’ve been locked up for too long without any of it.

“Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long,” Robert Macfarlane writes in his 2007 book, The Wild Places. “The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac….”

As COVID restrictions ease, people are flocking back to the green and blue spaces they love, excited to leave urban homes behind, but inevitably we’re already hearing stories about litter in parks and on beaches, and crowds, congestion, damaged footpaths, wildfires. Now so many of us have a hunger to explore the wild, will it stay wild?

Rewilding must continue as a real integral part of the “green recovery” so many people are clamouring for, and which our planet is so desperate for. The truth is we need a heck of a lot more wild places, protected, restored, funded, connected, and some close to all our towns and cities, so everyone gets access to somewhere wild. Indeed our urban spaces themselves need to incorporate the wild. Like Singapore, the “garden city”, with its vertical gardens, green roofs and interspersed parks, rivers and ponds. The possibilities are exciting and heartening, if we are bold. I love hearing plans like those from Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, to reimagine the site of the old Broadmarsh Shopping Centre as a green space – to make a natural oasis right in the beating heart of the city, with woodland, wetland and wildflower meadows. All our towns and cities need such plans, to bring nature in, so we can all live alongside it again, for our own sakes and the sake of the wild.

And then can we start talking about bringing lynx back?

10 Wild Reads

Here are some of my children’s and young adult recommendations, for books which connect you with the wild.

Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most.

Nicola writes in the coffee shops and green spaces of North London, where she lives, and escapes when she can to wilder corners of the UK for adventures. She is married, with four children and two cats.

Nicola’s first book Where the World Turns Wild is out now with Little Tiger Press, and a second book Between Sea and Sky is due to be published on July 8th.

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Emma Shevah talks about her new Middle Grade eco-adventure

Tell us about your new book.

How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg is narrated by Ivy Pink Floyd, animal communicator, and Nathaniel Breakwell, an animal- and routine-loving boy with Asperger’s who has been brought up by his grandmother. After his grandmother’s death, Nathaniel goes to stay in Southwold, Suffolk, with his eccentric, confusing mother, and meets the equally odd Ivy, a fostered girl with a ‘difficult past’, chicken friend wedged under her arm and a dog daddy who follows her everywhere. Both Nathaniel and Ivy are committed to animals and saving the world, but it’s hard to know what to do when the world is huge and you’re not even a teenager yet, and neither is great at making friends (human ones, at least). But when the impossible possible happens one night on the beach (let’s just say it involves a leatherback turtle and a lot of rumpus), they learn two important lessons: one, saving the world means doing what you can when you can, and two, none of us can do it on our own.

How does climate change play into the plot?

It’s central to the plot: both Ivy and Nathaniel want to save the planet, but they do it different ways (neither of which is very successful). Ivy talks to creatures and tries to help them, although their human owners are not very compliant or believing, and she mainly fails. Nathaniel tells everyone he meets fascinating facts, but this seems to drive them away instead of persuading them to change their habits or be his friend. The ‘impossible possible’ is actually impossible at the moment but with sea temperatures rising, perhaps one day it could actually be possible.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I read books on animals and animal behaviour; I read about and watched documentaries about animal communicators; I read books by ecologists and emailed turtle professors and experts about leatherback eggs, and their transportation, incubation and hatching. I contacted Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and the Leatherback Trust (only the first of those organisations was helpful!); I researched fostering, Asperger’s, and the Seri tribe in Mexico, and returned to Southwold to ride around on a bike and see where there were and weren’t lampposts, and what views you could see from e.g. Gun Hill, which meant walking around near people’s houses and taking photos like a suspicious stalker. I also did lots of internet searches for animal facts, mucus and saliva – if you’d seen any of my searches at that time, you’d have been very concerned about me.

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

I usually consider the benefits and drawbacks of being optimistic or pessimistic about a subject and how this might affect young readers. David Wallace-Wells begins his book, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ with the line, ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’ I’m not sure I could start with a similar message for kids.

If we think it’s too late to change our habits and create positive climate change, we won’t be motivated to do anything, but if we think it’s all fine and dandy, we won’t be motivated to make any changes or take action. I wanted kids to feel that although they don’t have jeeps or skills, they can help, and they can make a difference. With first person narrators, the political and scientific topics are limited to what the narrator might know, being an eleven or twelve-year-old child, so that frames how you present that information and what you include. Ivy doesn’t understand the scientific jargon the scientists use so she paraphrases it; Nathaniel would understand it but children only have the information taught to or discussed with them and often not the whole comprehensive picture, so this changes how you write it. I also wanted to highlight autism, different types of families, and feeling abandoned by a parent, and these are also serious subjects. I tend to use humour a lot to balance it out.

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

I love Carl Safina’s books: he’s an ecologist and scientist and is a poetic, insightful writer who shares his deep love for the natural world in every haunting and beautiful sentence he writes. The following are less about climate change but ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?’ by Frans de Waal; ‘The Unexpected Truth about Animals’ by Lucy Cooke and ‘Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith are all great reads.

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

I can’t say it’s a ‘journey’ or when it might have started because it’s just always been important to me. I’ve always deeply loved and felt profoundly connected to this planet and its creatures, and all of my actions are related to my experience of being here and sharing life on Earth with the people and creatures that are also here, have been here before me, and will be here after I’m gone. I think if you love the Earth, your whole life is – or should be – an act of activism. It’s just so hard in the modern world to walk the walk. I get on planes and I buy veg in plastic because it’s hard not to. I drive if I’m really tired and I know I could do more but I’m also running a home and a family, and two careers, one of which is ridiculously demanding. I’m not perfect – none of us is – but I really do care.

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

This is the biggest problem we face. I tend to write about what bothers me, and this bothers me hugely – I can’t not write about it. I know it also bothers other people, and kids have growing anxiety about climate change and what they’re inheriting, so it needs to be addressed and I feel compelled to offer them hope, even if it feels (and maybe is) hopeless.

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

This part can be found towards the end of the novel, when Nathaniel is talking to a scientist called Irina about some baby turtles that have just hatched and swum out to sea:

‘It’s too late, isn’t it?’ I asked quietly.

She paused, checking what I meant. ‘For them?’

‘For the planet.’

….

She paused, then added, ‘Those tiny hatchlings have so little chance, but they do everything they can to survive anyway. And that’s what we need to do. We can’t lose hope. The odds against us are enormous, but we have to do everything we can. And keep doing it. You understand me, right?’

You can find out more about How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg here.

Emma Shevah is half Thai and half Irish, and was born and raised in London. She holds a BA Honours in English and Philosophy from the University of Nottingham and an MA with Distinction in Creative and Professional Writing from Brunel. She is the author of Hello Baby Mo!, an early reader published by Bloomsbury, and four Middle Grade novels published by Chicken House: Dream on Amber (2014 – winner of the Odyssey Award), Dara Palmer’s Major Drama (2016 – optioned by CBBC), What Lexie Did (UK)/Lexie’s Little Lie (US) 2018 and How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg (2021). She currently lives in Brighton with 50% of her four children and is Head of Year 13 at Roedean.

A Letter to my Children by Cara Hoffman

Author Cara Hoffman shares a letter for her climate-anxious children.

Dear Creatures,

Yesterday I put on my mask and met a friend and we walked together in the National Forest. The leaves had begun to turn yellow and orange and red. The sun was shining through the branches We saw TOADS and chipmunks and blue birds. We heard owls and woodpeckers, wind blowing through the treetops, small animals skittering over dead leaves. The forest was bursting with life and it made me want to write you a letter.

I know this can be a scary time. There are fires in California and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Polar ice caps are melting. The weather is changing and the land where people and animals live is changing. Adults are worried and kids are too.

I have a few important things to tell you about climate change.

The first is this:

No matter what anyone says—it is not up to YOU to personally fix this frightening problem. Climate Change is not YOUR fault, or your parents’ fault. The environment didn’t get this bad because you used a plastic straw.

The environment is in danger because large companies have not listened when groups of people asked them to stop polluting the air and the water and the land. This is because they think the air and the water and the land belong to them.

The most important thing you can do right now to help the environment is

DON’T think like they do.

Plants and animals have their own lives. The earth doesn’t belong to you or me or an oil company anymore than it belongs to a cricket or a tree or a frog.

Right now, the National Forest Foundation is replanting trees everywhere in the country from Florida to Alaska. Their goal is to plant fifty million trees to repopulate the forests. Trees filter carbon out of the atmosphere and help clean the air. Forests help filter and supply water, and provide homes for animals of all kinds. More than 400 species depend on national forest habitat, including humans.

YOU and your family, and your friends and their families, can help plant those trees so that National Forests can exist in the future. This page will explain how you can help.

The climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote recently in her book No One is Too Small to Make a Difference that “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and the solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”

Many people have worked hard for those changes. Activists have told the world who the polluters are. Scientists have invented new ways to clean the air. Whole countries have promised to stop using coal and gas. We don’t know if they will keep their promises or not. They have broken them before. Together we can make sure they keep them. But right now YOU can make a promise to yourself and to the other creatures on this planet. You can promise to never believe the earth belongs to people.

People belong to the earth. And we need to remember that, because there’s no where else for us to go.

See you in the forest,

Cara

You can find out more about The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield here.

Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and an Autostraddle Best Queer and Feminist Book of 2017. She first received national attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

Climate News

World’s Revolution are seeking talented authors from all walks of life to submit climate fiction stories to our first anthology, set to release Fall 2021.They pay $0.01 per word for accepted stories, up to 10,000 words, for climate fiction with a fun science fiction/fantasy twist. The stories should also reflect themes of climate justice and an understanding of the intersectionality of the climate crisis. https://www.theworldsrevolution.com/submissions

Join Zoom writing sessions on 27th April and month onwards with Writing the Climate

Rewilding our cities: beauty, biodiversity and the biophilic cities movement [Guardian]

NFTs Are Hot. So Is Their Effect on the Earth’s Climate [Wired]

Climate change has impacted agricultural productivity growth by 21% since 1960s [Sky News]

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