February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Celebrating and Raising Awareness about the Natural World | SLJ Day of Dialog 2015

April Pulley Sayre, Anita Silvey, Louis Sachar, Wendell Minor, Paul Fleischman, and Julie Roach

Authors April Pulley Sayre, Anita Silvey, Louis Sachar, Wendell Minor, and Paul Fleischman with panel moderator Julie Roach (right).

When author Paul Fleischman began seeing dead bees on his driveway, he was disturbed—and motivated to look more deeply into what was really going on. The experience eventually led to his book and groundbreaking call to action, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines (Candlewick, 2014), and to his growing understanding of the world around him.

Fleischman joined other authors and illustrators on the 2015 SLJ Day of Dialog (DOD) panel “Second Nature: Celebrating the Natural World and Raising Awareness About How to Protect It,” taking place at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology on May 27. The panelists discussed what led them to focus on this always relevant topic, the challenges and rewards of writing for young people, and the crucial need to instill an appreciation of the environment in children.

Much like Fleischman, April Pulley Sayre was inspired simply by looking at the world around her in a new light. “I wanted to go out to photograph [one day], and it  was raining, and I thought, ‘Oh bummer.’ And then I thought, ‘Why am I not doing this?’” Despite the inclement weather, she set out to record what she saw and developed a newfound appreciation for rain—and created Raindrops Roll (S. & S., 2015), a picture book that pairs evocative images of rainfall with lyrical text.

Anita Silvey went straight to the source for Untamed, The Wild Life of Jane Goodall (National Geographic, 2015). She had the anpleasure of listening to Goodall give a lecture, which the primatologist kicked off by demonstrating a chimpanzee vocalization. Silvey quipped, “She had me from the hello pant-hoot. I was mesmerized by her and her passion.”

Louis Sachar, author of the Newbery-winning Holes (Farrar, 1998), took a slightly different tack. Unlike the nonfiction works highlighted here, Sachar’s Fuzzy Mud (Random, 2015) is a novel that deals with an ecological disaster.

“I didn’t necessarily set out to write an environmental story,” Sachar said. “I wanted to try writing a scary story.” What frightened him the most, however, was the effect humans are having on the environment. “At the end of the book, you realize that it’s the human population that’s expanding,” he said. “That’s a dangerous thing.”

Keeping the message positive

The speakers also touched on some of the challenges they faced when they began writing these works. Taking steps not to overwhelm or frighten children is critical, moderator Julie Roach, manager of youth services at the Cambridge (MA) Public Library, pointed out—something that Wendell Minor handled deftly when illustrating Robert Burleigh’s Trapped!: A Whale’s Rescue (Charlesbridge, 2015). Minor believes that this book, the true story of a humpback whale rescued by divers after she became tangled in fishing nets, will resonate with kids because of its uplifting tone.

“It really struck a chord with [Burleigh and me], that this is a moment in life that deals with the environment [and] that gives kids a positive ending,” said Minor. “I think kids are inherently positive about the world that they inherit.”

For Sachar, balancing the sense of hope that runs through all his novels with the darkness inherent in an ecological disaster was the most difficult part of writing Fuzzy Mud. “It wasn’t written with a sense of optimism,” he said. “It was written with this foreboding environmental catastrophe.”

One of the biggest challenges for Fleischman was making his transition from fiction to nonfiction. With picture books and novels, he said, “Every word counts. They all have to be counted like passengers going aboard…a ship.” While writing Eyes Wide Open, however, he found that he needed to use more words to “unpack the language. I had to go back and explain a little more clearly.”

The book presented some brand-new opportunities for Fleischman as well. “In nonfiction, you have multiple channels,” he said. For instance, “[Eyes Wide Open] has notes! Novels don’t have notes.” Similarly, he described the benefits of additional resources such as captions, recommended reading, and even an associated website where he makes corrections and updates to the information he introduced in the book.

Silvey, too, spoke about the difficulties of writing nonfiction. “You believe you know something,” she said. “Into the project, you realize you know absolutely nothing about the subject. [Then] you become an expert. Then you know too much to write for children [and have to] bring it back down to that simple level.”

Sparking young people’s passion and curiosity, though, was most the important challenge, however. “For kids, the Earth began the day they were born,” Fleischman said. “It’s older than that, and letting them know that history is happening right now, no matter where they are” is key.

For Minor, books like Trapped give kids the opportunity to develop a true appreciation and love for nature—something that many don’t have access to. “I’m a facts and figures person, but I also want to present the environment as something that’s engaging.”

Roach echoed those sentiments in her closing comments: “When conveying information to kids about…the natural world, it’s most important to help them learn how to appreciate and respect it,” she said. “From there we can take next steps and move forward, but you have to develop that love for it before you can go anywhere.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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  1. The power of panel presentations is evident in this SLJ collaboration. I’ve been aware and excited by possibilities for readers of Fleischman’s “Eyes Wide Open,” but unaware of Sacher’s “Fuzzy Mud” or Minor’s “Trapped.” Sharing their comments in the panel and in this article helps me weave common threads together to help promote exploration of a significant issue. Thanks