Though many authors have taken on environmental issues, few have done so as effectively—and innovatively—as Newbery Award–winning author Paul Flesichman in Eyes Wide Open (Candlewick, 2014), which recently received an SLJ star. Rather than simply offering the typical, kid-friendly ways to save the Earth, the book explores the political and economic roots of the ecological crisis, addressing not just the scientific but the social. Fleischman has written an empowering call to action, stirring young people to challenge assumptions, examine the biases of companies and politicians, and, ultimately, think for themselves.
What brought you to the topic of the environment?
The same act of noticing, which I encourage in the book. When I moved to Aromas, California, the sky held swallows by day and bats by night. Ten years later, both were gone. I began noticing dead bees on the driveway. I was gripped by the idea of a holocaust unseen and unheard by humans. I wanted to write a book that would go behind the taken-for-granted quality of daily life.
Your work differs from most books on the topic aimed at young people.
My goal wasn’t telling kids what to do but giving them the understanding that would be a foundation for action. I thought of my best teachers: the ones who made surprising connections between the past and the present, who picked out general principles behind the mass of facts. I searched for the roots of the environmental crunch we’re in and the roots of our difficulty in dealing with it. Giving readers names for them will give them power to perceive what’s going on in many different spheres.
A big theme throughout is challenging readers not to believe everything they read.
Progress has losers as well as winners. The interests who stand to lose from our veering away from fossil fuels have flooded the media with an alternate science—different facts, explanations, forecasts. These are increasingly delivered by unseen online hands and front groups with deceptive names. Not a problem if you’re studying calculus or French, but with the environment, the ability to look critically at information sources is crucial.
What was your research process like?
I read, I watched, I clicked—for three years. I did the very things I recommend readers do. I shied away from sources that saw only black and white but no gray. I clicked on hundreds of websites’ “About” pages, trying to get a sense of who was behind the site, then went elsewhere for corroboration. I watched stacks of videos and realized that they were like op-eds, honed to present an argument in its best light rather than to cover all sides.
Was balancing the science with a discussion of political and economic systems a challenge?
I had to remind myself that this would likely be the first time that readers would look critically at their own economic and political systems. It was exciting to open their eyes to things hiding in plain sight, from the price of fast food to the funding of candidates. More of the book is devoted to human behavior than the behavior of molecules, because that’s where both the causes and the solutions lie. Technical problems are easy by comparison. The world needs teens’ out-of-the-box thinking here.
What do you want readers to take away?
My hope is that they’ll come away with a new view of their moment in history. They’re seeing global civilization attempt to change course—something unprecedented. I hope they’ll see their lifestyle from a new angle, as something similarly unprecedented. And I hope they’ll be able to encounter any environment-connected news story and have the context and vocabulary under their belts that makes what might have been cloudy suddenly clear.