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Inspiring Young Climate Activists

With Help from The Lorax and Greta Thunberg

By Stuart Mitchner

“In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might,” said Dr. Seuss of his favorite book. In a 1990 interview with Publishers Weekly, Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) admitted “I was a preacher in that book, but I got away with it by disguising the message.”

The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham were a joy to read aloud to my infant son, but The Lorax was more, much more. On the other side of the typically bold and bright Dr. Seuss cover was a dark world of night-blue endpapers dwarfing the bushy-yellow-mustached Lorax, who looked alone and afraid against a haunted night sky while the yellow eyes of the sinister, ever-invisible Once-ler peered through the slats of a boarded up purple window. My then-3-year-old son had no trouble identifying with the boy who finds himself on the Street of the Lifted Lorax at “the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows and no birds ever sing excepting old crows.”

The excitement of reading The Lorax aloud to my son had nothing to do with the “disguised” environmental message; it was because of something greater than the zany style and word play that made the other books such fun. This was Seuss on the grand scale, the artist at work on a project he truly believed in. The fact that my now much older son has an enlightened view of climate change may be thanks at least in part to the closing pages when the Lorax sadly lifted himself into the air and disappeared through the smog, leaving behind a small pile of rocks engraved with the word “UNLESS.” As the repentant Once-ler who once ruthlessly harvested the Trufulla Trees finishes telling the boy his story, he says “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

The book’s last page is stunning: at the bottom of a bulbous tower of white clouds, the boy’s hands reach for the last Truffula seed, thrown down by the green arm of the Once-ler from his towering purple habitat (“Catch!”). At that point, my son knew it was Dr. Seuss himself telling him, “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds” and urging him to “grow a forest.”

The stature of The Lorax among the numerous environmentally themed children/young adult books released every year is evidence of its enduring power. Besides topping the list of “8 Great Climate Change Books for Kids,” it’s near the top of TIME’s “14 Actually Good Books to Teach Kids About Climate Change,” posted by Emily Barone and Kyla Mandel, who composed the list with submissions from a range of experts, including members of the North American Association of Environmental Education.

School Bus Magic

Mentioned near the top of both lists is The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge (Scholastic Press 2010) by Joanna Cole, with Bruce Degen’s illustrations. According to Booklist, “Verbal and visual elements work seamlessly together as Ms. Frizzle takes her students soaring around the earth to study climate change, through the atmosphere to understand the greenhouse effect, above solar and wind power installations to see alternative energy sources, and above their town to observe carbon dioxide emissions. Back at school and at home, they start putting energy-saving practices into effect. Given the breadth and complexity of the topic, this may be the most ambitious book yet in the Magic School Bus series. Cole and Degen carry it off with their matchless combination of intelligence, style, and grade-school humor.”

Another book on the TIME list is Sydney & Simon Go Green! (Charlesbridge 2015) by Paul A. Reynolds with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds. According to School Library Journal, “Sydney meets Greenie the sea turtle during a field trip to the aquarium. Greenie has been harmed by plastic waste that has made its way into the ocean. Sydney returns home and begins to track her family’s trash production. From there, she finds out, with the help of custodian Mr. Clutterbuck, that her school produces an enormous amount of waste. Her campaign inspires an original song as well as a series of major changes in waste management and recycling at the school. In the end, Greenie is ready to be returned to the ocean and Sydney and Simon pledge to help everyone ‘Go Green!’ The highly approachable text is beautifully complemented by Reynolds’s artwork.”

Stand Up!

The same activist message is writ large in Andrew Joyner’s Stand Up! Speak Up!: A Story Inspired by the Climate Change Revolution (Schwartz & Wade 2020), a 2021 Malka Penn Award Honor winner about a young girl’s mission to inspire other kids to help the planet. Following the example of Greta Thunberg, the book contains so roundly rousing a call to action that I checked to see if it had been banned in Red State schools. The story plays on variations of the word “up,” from everyday uses like “Dress up, Eat up, and Drink up” to the nameless girl’s cry of “Rise up!” before a huge crowd gathered at the steps of the Town Hall. Some parents and political activists on the other side of the climate change debate will cringe at the two-page spread showing wildly enthusiastic kids holding signs saying “Denial Is Not the Answer” and “Science Not Silence.”

Featuring Greta

The young Swedish activist is featured in Our House Is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet (Beach Lane 2019) by Jeanette Winter. Echoing Thunberg’s speech at the World Economic Forum in 2019 (“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic … I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”), the book shows how she learned about the climate change crisis, what she’s done to take action, and how she spread the message that children like her can help change the world.

“Environmental Messaging”

Julie Hall’s A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids (GreenGoat Books 2007), with illustrations by Sarah Lane, extends the message about global warming to kids around the world. According to Bill McKibben, author of Fight Global Warming Now and End of Nature, “What’s so dangerous about global warming is that it leaves many people feeling hopeless, as if nothing they could do would matter. This fine book makes it clear that that’s not the case, and from changing light bulbs to changing laws, it shows young people how they are able to help.”

Katherine Applegate’s Willodeen (Feiwel & Friends 2021) was given a starred review in Booklist, dubbing it “a gentle yet honest tale” that “mixes magic with very real environmental messaging, both warning of human-caused harm and pointing to nature’s resilience and interconnectedness…. Applegate empowers her young characters by not only granting them courage but also ensuring they earn the respect of their elders.”

For Older Kids

Tony Bradman’s Under the Weather: Stories About Climate Change (Frances Lincoln Books 2012), is also aimed at older children and pre-teens, showcasing the various effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to changes in animal behavior and habits. As noted by the publisher, “These stories cover a wide range of localities from Siberia and Canada to Australia, UK, Sri Lanka and the Phillippines. Writers include award-winning Linda Newbery as well as exciting newcomers like Australia’s George Ivanoff.”

The Lorax at 50

In August 2021, NPR marked the 50th anniversary of The Lorax by pointing out that the celebration coincided with the week the United Nations released an urgent report on the dire consequences of human-induced climate change. According to Dartmouth anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Nathaniel Dominy, Dr. Seuss wanted to write a book that captured the effects of pollution on ecosystems, “and I would say it was really ahead of its time. The different species disappear from the narrative in succession. The Bar-ba-loots leave because they run out of food. The Swomee-Swans leave because the air is polluted. The humming fish leave because the water’s polluted.”

Biographer Donald Pease says Seuss believed in the movement but didn’t care for its rhetoric. He thought it was “preachy and bossy.” He was also furious about construction going on in his La Jolla, Calif., neighborhood. “They were destroying quite beautiful eucalyptus trees, and he wanted to do something about this, and he had to find a way to transform what he understood to be a propaganda-oriented perspective on these matters into a fable that even children could understand.” But, Pease adds, “he also was confronted with writer’s block,” which was broken during a visit to Kenya when “he caught a view in the mountains of elephants crossing” and “the logjam broke” and “he was able to write 90% of The Lorax that afternoon.”

The use of “logjam” has ironic resonance since the most serious resistance to the book came from the logging industry, which actually published a parody response called Truax, with Seuss-like drawings of terrified trees. Adding another level of irony is the fact that trees are harvested for paper to make books like The Lorax and all the books now at risk in libraries in Texas and Florida and other states where political versions of the Once-ler are attacking not only books they don’t like, but the institutional essence of the library itself.

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