Best Books for Kids and Teens

The best books on The Environment for Kids

recommended by Georgina Stevens

What are the best books to engage and educate young kids about the environment? Environmentalist and author Georgina Stevens has some ideas. She recommends her favourite environment books for kids, as well as a few websites that will help teach them (and their families) how to make a difference.

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Georgina Stevens

Georgina Stevens has worked in sustainability for 16 years, working on all sides of the fence; she has worked as an environmental consultant in Asia, at NGOs including WWF-UK where she helped and challenged many companies on their environmental policies and has helped shape some of the most respected sustainability programmes and initiatives during her tenure at both M&S and Virgin. She now runs her own sustainability consultancy, supporting a wide range of organisations from start-ups to multinationals who all share the bravery and intention to look at things differently and make big changes. She is also a trustee for climate change campaigning organisation 1010 and an author, campaigner and speaker on sustainability. She is currently working on her not-for-profit Be The Change book series, which aims to engage children on what they can do to make positive change in the world.

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Georgina Stevens

Georgina Stevens has worked in sustainability for 16 years, working on all sides of the fence; she has worked as an environmental consultant in Asia, at NGOs including WWF-UK where she helped and challenged many companies on their environmental policies and has helped shape some of the most respected sustainability programmes and initiatives during her tenure at both M&S and Virgin. She now runs her own sustainability consultancy, supporting a wide range of organisations from start-ups to multinationals who all share the bravery and intention to look at things differently and make big changes. She is also a trustee for climate change campaigning organisation 1010 and an author, campaigner and speaker on sustainability. She is currently working on her not-for-profit Be The Change book series, which aims to engage children on what they can do to make positive change in the world.

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Your first book for children, Finn the Fortunate Tiger Shark, is a book with a clear message for children about the impact of plastics on our oceans. Could you begin by telling me about your background and  what you hope children will learn from reading your book?

I grew up on a farm and saw first-hand the impact that we were having on the environment there. From the different pesticides my dad used and their different impacts, to the process of rearing animals and the way things tasted when they were fresh from the farm and untreated.  My first job after uni was as an environmental consultant in Hong Kong assessing the impact of major developments on this crowded island.  When I returned to the UK I fell into an advertising career for a few years because it seemed fun and glamorous. I soon realised that I was part of the problem I wanted to fix and so I left that industry to work for the World Wildlife Foundation.  But my time in advertising had not been wasted because I learned so much about business and how it worked and I saw how powerful and clever the consumer lobby was – and how much money they had to keep people buying things.  I then went on to work for several companies on their sustainability programmes, including Virgin and M&S. Then I set up as an independent advisor which gave me the freedom to work with the companies I felt really wanted to change or who really needed to change. I could only work on the latter when I was inspired and propped up by working with the former – otherwise you can burn out working in this area.

When I had my son I found myself reading a lot of children’s books and I was surprised at how few of them addressed the issues that I knew were important. So I decided I should just get on and write some myself.

My first book, Finn the Fortunate Tiger Shark, is about a tiger shark who eats plastic, gets poorly and whose friends get the local community involved in helping to solve the issue.  I hope it will make children laugh and make them care about what they do with plastic things and what their family buys and make them want to know more.

Connected to your writing for children you are also involved with the global “World’s Biggest Beach Clean” project taking place at Shoreham-by-Sea this weekend on Sunday 4th March – anyone can come along and join in can’t they? 

Yes and we have about 600 people coming to Shoreham-by-Sea beach on the 4th to clean up and show the world, our governments, our policy makers, our companies and our media that they care about this issue.  The aim of the event is to get a picture of the 600 of us spelling out ACT NOW on the beach – a signal to the world of how powerful we all are and how every little action we all take has an impact.  Also, of course, it’s a nudge to the government on their woeful pledge to phase out “avoidable plastics” by 2042.

As a parent I worry about the best way to present environmental issues like these to a young child in a way that empowers them and makes them feel they can help – rather than terrifying them or making them feel helpless and overwhelmed.

I think it is us adults who feel overwhelmed, helpless and guilty about our environment and, I think, too often we project our feelings onto our children or expect them to feel the same.  Children don’t feel guilty, or frightened, or overwhelmed about this stuff – they just feel curious!  They have an innate connection with nature and they want to know more.

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The big problem is that currently too many books are misleading them (and many of us!) into believing that there are plenty of every type of animal in this world, that all farm animals and farmers are happy, and that there isn’t a problem with everyone driving around and throwing things “away.” There are many more but these are the ones that really annoy me and that I feel are having a detrimental impact.  If I hear another “garbage truck” song I might explode! Why are we focusing on garbage trucks? I know lots of children love anything with wheels but why aren’t we singing about recycling trucks or about electric cars?  Surely we should be inspiring them to think about the possibilities? I am not saying EVs are the cure or even a perfect solution – but they are a possibility, a chance for change and for better local air quality as well as less climatic impact. Interestingly, I think other mediums, such as animation, are more progressive on this front. I digress, forgive me, but I feel really strongly about this.

“We are all so powerful, and we need our children to understand that from an early age.  Each of us can make the world a better place by doing one simple thing a day”

From my experience children want to know the truth, which is why their perennial question is “ but why?” So my answer to how to engage them on some serious issues is with honesty, humour and showing clear actions that they can carry out which will make a difference.  We all know children want to be in charge, they want ideas about things they can do to feel they are making a difference. I think too few books empower anyone, let alone children, on climate change.

Science may be able to help provide solutions to many of our environmental problems – including those in the oceans and seas. But no matter how brilliant these scientific advances and discoveries are they won’t completely solve the world’s problems. Humans need to make enormous changes in their habits in order to save the planet. I’ve heard that the sort of changes needed will be easier for the next generation to make than for current generations – because they are pretty dramatic changes in the way we live. 

Our children are going to inherit a planet with a very volatile climatic system. I don’t think we can rely on technology to save us.  I think we need to tune in to our instincts and true feelings again, something that so many of us have lost.  Our instincts about what we really need, about what makes us truly happy and peaceful – our instincts about who we are.  I am aware that this sounds hippyish but I think it is true and simple.

We can begin by reconnecting with nature in any way we can and that works for us.  Walking, lying on the ground (I can often be found lying down in Wimbledon Common or on the beach in Shoreham) just looking at the trees or the flowers we have around us in cities and in the countryside, thinking about what they do for us, understanding where our food comes from, the processes it goes through, where all our things come from and go to.

We’ve lost a lot of empathy for nature over the years – it’s not surprising at all given the lifestyles so many of us lead – we are so busy making ends meet, working all hours, juggling parenthood with careers.  I believe we need to find ways to reconnect very quickly and there are many great things happening to help us do this.  Forest school, for me, is the most powerful of them all, helping our youngest connect with nature and see it up close and personal. There are many others such as the rewilding sites springing up across the UK, the Open Streets Projects, the growing permaculture revolution, and charities like Roots and Shoots.

How would you choose educate the next generation about the environment and our oceans?

More forest schools and more forest school educators in schools would be a great first step.  I think we need better children’s books and programmes for all ages on environmental issues, which empower them to understand the issues and take action.  I also think we need to retire the books that tell them it’s all fine, that feature dirty vehicles, wasteful habits or instil apathy.  We don’t have the time for them anymore.  I might put together a black list, actually, and share it with my local library. I must admit I don’t know enough about how our school curriculum is formulated – but, from the children I have spoken to, environmental issues only appear to be taught in geography lessons. Often what is taught is non-committal on the fact that climate change is human induced – and none of them seemed particularly concerned about it as an issue.

So, from what I have seen, I think we need more material about all aspects of climate change and our environment (politics, waste, manufacturing, finances, innovations, solutions, technology, mistakes made, art and creativity etc etc etc) weighing up solutions and predictions. Not questioning our part in it! These issues pervade every subject from home economics (food waste, agricultural impacts, GM) to IT (tech solutions), politics, English and art (how to engage on this issue).

I also think we need to start to understand the motivations of some of our most powerful media outlets and then judge whether they are useful tools for our children to learn about these issues from.  Many of the newspapers don’t like to concern their readers (who are mainly an older audience) with the fact that they may need to change or with the fact that they are responsible, as this makes people feel uncomfortable and this, of course, doesn’t sell papers.  It also doesn’t work for their main funders, often the big car companies and supermarkets – so there is no incentive for them to explore these interesting, world changing and essential issues. So I would help people to understand where the useful information is and where it’s not.

What information do you consider the priority and what changes would you suggest they start making now?

I don’t know enough about how the school curriculum is written, but I would want climate scientists, waste and soil specialists, zoologists, renewable energy experts, tech experts, futurologists and other subject experts involved in writing our children’s curriculum.  When there was talk that Gove had made changes to the curriculum – taking out climate change, and then redrafting it back in – it made many people question how those decisions are made and how we can be sure our children are being taught enough or truthfully on this issue.

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I would argue that the truth about where we are, who doesn’t want us to know about it and why, and clear information about what each age group can do are the priorities.

We are all so powerful, and we need our children to understand that from an early age.  Each of us can make the world a better place by doing one simple thing a day.

This seems like a good place to talk about your first book choice, The Last Tiger by Rebecca Elliott. 

This book captures effortlessly for me how we, as a society, love to put beautiful endangered animals in cages and stare at them – but we don’t spend enough time talking or thinking about what we are doing.  We are so ashamed but also too scared to admit our role and so tell ourselves that none of us can do anything. Many different forces collude to keep us thinking that we cannot change things. So this book is a story of hope.

Next you’ve chosen The Lorax by Dr Seuss – what resonates with you about the message in this book?

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, no it’s not.” 
This quote says it all for me. The best verse in town, wonderful illustrations and an honest look at what we are doing to our world – with a message that each and every one of us can make the decision to change at any moment.

Your third choice is The Unexpected Visitor by Jessica Courtney-Tickle.

This beautifully illustrated book has a poignant, beautiful and clear message about overfishing.  I would have loved to have seen the book go even further by recommending what we can do, for example by buying MSC fish or looking for other sustainability criteria when we buy fish – or to signpost some of the bycatch petitions and other things going on in the fishing industry. Yet, even without these extras, I still find it a very thoughtful and thought-provoking book.

The Trouble With Dragons by Debi Gliori is your next choice.

This is such an amazing book that is honest about the scale of the issue and that it’s our fault – but presented in a really fun way.  A very tricky thing to do well, but she has done it.  Great rhyming verse, and really great illustrations, lots to look at and all done with humour.  A brilliant book.

Your fifth book is a book that I remember from my childhood. I distinctly remember first discovering it at primary school: Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish by Michael Foreman.

There is so much to love about this book.  Firstly, the dinosaurs being woken up by the heat from humans burning everything and then them tidying up the mess.  My son gets really upset when they throw the cars in the volcanoes but it’s the only book I’ve found that neatly points the finger at this big issue for us.  Reading it together opens up a conversation between us about how some cars are better than others for the environment.  This is a wonderful line:
“Please may I have a small part of it back? He asked. Please? Just a hill, or a tree, or a flower? No, said the dinosaur, Not a part of it, but all of it.  It is all yours, but it is also all mine. Remember that.  The earth belongs to everyone.” 
I also love the Mr Ben-like animation, but that is showing my age! This is another book that would benefit from signposting children to more information on the topics it raises – that would be the icing on the cake.

You have mentioned the need for improved signposting and more information for parents and families in books about big issues, like the ones we have been discussing. Could you recommend some websites or organisations to look at?

Of course! These are some of my favourites:

https://www.desmog.uk – see what is really happening in the world, behind the PR curtain.

http://clearplasticuk.net/plastic-clever-initiative – Kids Against Plastic are two inspiring young sisters who are single-handedly taking on the plastic world and winning. This is very inspiring for youngsters.

http://exxpedition.com/ocean-changemakers-toolkit/ – all you need to understand ocean plastic facts and some inspiration about what you can do about it.

http://www.ethicalconsumer.org – a great magazine and online resource to find out which companies we should support and buy products from – and those we should give a swerve.

http://www.projectdirt.com/about/ – community projects online, lots of environmental ones too to get you back into nature, in your locale.

https://www.zerowasteweek.co.uk – full of great ideas for living with less plastic.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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