Save The Environment, Read Your Child A Book
June 05, 2018
In my school, nobody took the Environmental Studies class very seriously. The teachers told us the things we needed to learn, and the EVS exams were always ridiculously easy. There could have been several reasons why the teachers didn’t consider it important to educate us about environmental issues – it didn’t matter to them, they thought we were too young to understand, they didn’t see the point of it as a school subject, or they just weren’t able to convey the gravity of the situation. Today environmental degradation and climate change are realities children and adults can ill-afford to ignore.
But how do you explain the consequences of the global environmental crisis without diminishing it into a distant statistic? Growing up as a city kid meant that I was very cut off from the natural world and didn’t appreciate the wild bits which did manage to thrive in my urban space. Even today, to my utter shame, there are very few trees I would be able to name on sight. How then do you draw attention to environmentalism when so many young people are disconnected from their own local environment? As always, I know a children’s book for that.
I chatted with Bijal Vachharajani, author of So You Want to Know About the Environment, a nonfiction book for kids which strikes the perfect balance between fun and informative. Written in an accessible and engaging tone with plenty of jokey asides, it manages to pack in a lot of information about the human impact on the world and offers practical and easily-implementable activities which kids can do to live more sustainably. It’s also based firmly in an Indian context without being divorced from the larger world.
Vachharajani grew interested in environmentalism when she volunteered for an animal welfare organisation as a college student in Mumbai. While discussing her youthful idealism, we pondered whether young people are more susceptible to messages like environmentalism if they’re exposed to them while still forming their ideas about the world. She has also worked in the media department of PETA and at Sanctuary Asia and 360.org.
“Half the time I was constantly horrified by how little I knew,” she remembers. Her admission was a relief because I’m sure there are many people (like me) who feel like they don’t know enough to contribute effectively. Her book not only increases awareness but also offers practical advice in a non-intimidating manner. One of her 11-year-old readers wrote to Vaccharajani and bemoaned that there was nothing we could do and the planet was doomed- a feeling I completely sympathise with even as a 28-year-old adult – is the planet too broken to fix?! Thankfully Vaccharajani promptly responded to her (and me!) about the need to focus on the positives. The same reader also wrote that thanks to the book, she had spent hours observing a snail she called Rain and had gotten together with her friends to discuss a trash segregation drive in their housing society. So it’s not all doom and gloom. Vachharajani hopes that her book helps readers reflect on their attitudes concerning the environment and the ramifications of their actions, consider the larger world – even if it’s their locality or school– and stimulates a sense of scientific curiosity among them.
Independent Indian publishers of children’s books – Pratham Books, Tulika, Katha, Tara, Karadi Tales and Duckbill among others – have a range of environmental-themed titles in a variety of genres. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can all play different roles in stimulating interest. There are nonfiction titles like Walk The Grasslands With Takuri where the theme is explicitly environmental and the illustrations showcase diverse Indian wildlife and landscapes. These books give readers information about these areas, sometimes draw their attention to the problems faced by them, and often call for their participation in ensuring these are protected. Books like The Bee Master offer creative solutions and examples exhibiting how humans can coexist in harmony with their environment. One genre of environmental books – including Chipko Takes Root – features stories of real-life conservationists and environmental movements. There are some books like The Poop Book! which offer information in experimental, playful ways. Then there are books like I Will Save My Land where environmentalism is only a part of the narrative which may also draw attention to the larger consequences of taking the planet for granted. All these books offer different entry points into a conversation about environmentalism.
Vachharajani thinks fiction, in particular, can do a great job of subtly drawing attention to environmental issues and can play a huge role in shifting attitudes. Like many Indian readers, she grew up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton. “I was fascinated by this boy in The Children of Cherry Tree Farm and his interactions with the wild,” she remembers. “And in the Circus series, I learned that lions and tigers don’t like to do tricks. For me, that was such an important idea.” Her concern is that nonfiction in India can sometimes come off as a little textbook-ish which might put off a child reader. “International books have more fun with it,” she says. “There’s this one called Mission: Explore Food which is just such crazy fun. It has activities kids would love – things like telling a joke to a plant.”
We discussed the dearth of environmental books for older kids – though both Vachharajani and I love The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street and writer Ranjit Lal’s books which deal with the theme in fun, unconventional ways. “Humour is very essential in such books,” Vachharajani believes. “Ranjit Lal talks about wildlife in a very clever way.” Apart from humour, she thinks a good environmental book shouldn’t wear its message on its sleeve. “With the kinds of books for children out there now, we have grown used to more complex storytelling,” she explains. “There should be more of that even in books which have environmentalism as the theme.” She would also like to see more climate fiction and stories about food. “Everyone watches Master Chef and Junior Master Chef these days,” she points out. “We need to have more books centred on food and where it comes from. Maybe books set on farms. We’ve grown very urban in our storytelling. We’re disconnected from the rural environment.”
Children’s books can be instrumental in both raising awareness and inspiring action. They often deal with complex issues. They can make the impact of environmental challenges relevant to their readers’ lives by presenting information in engaging ways. Unlike a textbook which provides superficial information about a variety of topics, children’s books tend to focus on one issue and provide fresh and detailed perspectives. Abstract concepts are illuminated and children can make connections with their own worlds while understanding the importance of a more sustainable future. Most importantly, children’s books are fun and the good ones can spark both inspiration and active participation.
The author of this piece, Parinita, has also curated a list of books that teach children about the environment. You can read that list, here.
Parinita Shetty likes books, board games, blanket forts, and cake. She dislikes procrastinating but not enough to actually stop doing it. She works with children's books in different ways and has managed to write a few too. She should currently be writing but is probably watching Doctor Who. You can reach her on Instagram.