You know, I was just talking about this a couple weeks ago and was wondering: will we get a new Gen X out of this generation of kids growing up with fear of the world ending? I was 12 when Reagan took control of the button. I knew what DEFCON 5 meant before I’d kissed someone. I had a whole plan for how to rise to the top of my Red Dawn/Mad Max ragtag-crew-of-survivors so that I might lead them strongly, but fairly, into a new life in the radioactive wastelands of the 905. To this day I have a secret fetish for survivalist equipment. Seriously, I have a cupboard with those carbon filter straws, foil blankets, and other survival crap in it. That said, no one tried to torture me at bedtime with colourful books about it. They just left me alone to read the Dungeon Master’s Guide over and over at night, falling asleep wondering if I was going to wake up to the ground shaking and a bright light that melted my face. I don’t know. We couldn’t do anything as kids in 1982. But these books seem to be telling kids today that they CAN do something, and that’s positive, I suppose. But also perhaps a bit daunting. “What do you mean I can do something? I’m 8. Why the fuck didn’t you do something, Dad?” Anyway, maybe we’ll get some grandkids we can relate to out of this.
Mangan fears that the moral instruction in environmental non-fiction is too obvious, not least because “there is only one stance that 99% of scientists and writers would want to take so there’s not much room for doing anything with it”. She says: “Children’s literature began with a desire to instruct but if it had stuck to its guns we wouldn’t still be reading it.” The “golden age” of children’s literature only arrived when authors such as J M Barrie to Edith Nesbit cast off Victorian moralising and wrote from a children’s point of view. “Moralising doesn’t get you very far,” argues Mangan.
Environmental fiction for children aged 10 and above and dystopian novels for young adults are also proliferating in this age of anxiety. At BookTrust, Coleman has particularly enjoyed The Dog Runner by Australian author Bren MacDibble (who lost her home in a wildfire) and Run Wild by Gill Lewis, a vet who tackles complex wildlife themes in her books, from the persecution of birds of prey as well as bear-bile farming and endangered gorillas.
Can this outpouring of environmentalism capture children’s imagination without terrifying them? I test some books on my eight-year-olds. We read Pankhurst’s worthy-sounding Fantastically Great Women Who Saved The Planet. To my surprise, Milly and Esme love it, and I do too: it is funny and interesting, telling stories not just of westerners such as Jane Goodall but also Wangari Maathai, from Kenya, and Isatou Ceesay, from the Gambia. A few days later, Milly tells me they’ve discussed Pankhurst’s story of the Chipko movement in the Indian Himalayas with their teacher. “In the Chipko movement it starts off with one person and then they all protect a whole range of trees from being cut down,” says Milly. “Even a tiny difference makes something big.”