Happily ever after?

One way to change the future of the planet is to influence the next generation. Nick Smurthwaite looks at illustrated eco books for children, which are capturing imaginations and getting the Green message across without being preachy


It took Debi Gliori two years to come up with the idea for her children’s picture book, The Trouble With Dragons, which deals with pollution, waste and ecological damage in a child-friendly way. While her picture books may be fun and visually arresting, she takes the business of writing for children very seriously indeed.

‘The reason it took so long was that it was such a huge subject to present to very young children,’ Gliori explains. ‘You’re torn between telling the truth, which you know is going to freak them out, and watering it down, which will mean compromising your own ethical principles.’

She plumped for dragons because they never existed in the first place, so she could ‘threaten them with extinction at the end of the story without upsetting too many readers’.

The urgency of climate change and its likely ecological effects has opened up a whole new market in children’s publishing – Green issue-led picture books. Bandwagon or not, the sales figures show that the best eco-books for kids are big sellers.

But, as Sue Buswell from Harper Collins points out, it is not enough simply to pick on a hot topic and weave a story around it. ‘The book has to transcend its subject’s immediate interest. Preachy isn’t tenable in the picture book market, even if it is to do with getting kids to eat or go to bed. Our books have to make them laugh and capture their imaginations – preferably both.’

Buswell’s latest find is Oliver Jeffers, whose second book, Lost and Found, about an improbable friendship between a boy and a penguin, won a coveted Nestlé Children’s Book Prize. His latest, The Great Paper Caper, coming out in September, is meant to demonstrate Harper Collins’ commitment to using more eco-friendly paper from renewable sources. Indeed, the rush of British publishers to sign up for so-called Forest Stewardship Council paper has been so great that printers in the Far East have run out already.

Jeffers has produced a wacky ‘whodunit’ about a bear that surreptitiously chops down trees in order to make the paper he needs to win a paper aeroplane competition. His fellow forest dwellers set about tracking down the arboreal abuser. Jeffers’ sophisticated, idiosyncratic style is unusual in a picture book for young children, but he says he is not afraid of narrative complexity.

‘When I took on the commission, I made it clear I wasn’t interested in writing a company pamphlet,’ he says. ‘Even if there is a thinly veiled message, people will see through that, kids included. The main objective has to be to entertain through good storytelling.’

The Eden Project, which publishes books through Random House, is not so squeamish about laying its message on the line. In George Saves the World by Lunchtime, writer Jo Readman and illustrator Ley Honor Roberts set out explicitly to show kids how to recycle, re-use, reduce and repair in order to make the world a Greener place. Roberts uses a combination of brightly coloured illustrations and photographic inserts to good effect.

Similarly, Melanie Walsh’s Ten Things I Can Do to Help My World, published by Walker Books, is intended to set children on the path to becoming Green at an early age. In a series of simple, brightly hued images, writer-illustrator Walsh exhorts her young readers to turn off the lights, make toys out of unwanted packaging, draw on both sides of a piece of paper, and so on. ‘I can still remember the Save It and Keep Britain Tidy campaigns from my own childhood,’ says Walsh. ‘If you can involve children young enough, they will change their habits.’

How to Turn Your Parents Green, written by James Russell and published last year by Tangent Books, is a pocket book aimed at older kids with higher reading skills. More manifesto than bedtime story, it amounts to a junior eco-warrior’s battle plan, and is accompanied by charmingly quirky graphics by Bristol-based Norwegian illustrator Øivind Hovland.

The irony of an industry not famed for its eco-friendliness coming over all self-righteous does not escape some of those employed in its service. ‘I work under a crushing weight of guilt,’ says Gliori. ‘But we all have to live with it because there is no way you can curl up in bed with your child and an e-reader.’

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