Friday, October 15, 2010

Avoiding Alarmism

“Leaving the lights on won’t actually kill a polar bear.” This headline for a column in the July 4, 2010 issue of the “Washington Examiner,” a free daily paper found at most DC Metro stations, caught the eye of a friend of mine. She tore out the column, scribbled “here’s another view” at the top of the page, and left it on my front porch. It’s got me a little worked up. It’s not every day you see the word “iniquitous” used to describe the motives of children’s book authors.

Meghan Cox Gurdon began her piece with the story of two young girls in her kitchen, one of whom asked Gurdon to “please tell [the other child] that global warming isn’t real.” When Gurdon asked why, the girl responded, “Someone told her that if she leaves a light on, a polar bear would die.”

“Nonsense,” Gurdon told the child. “Grown-ups are investigating global warming and arguing about it. The one thing I can tell you is that you shouldn’t be afraid to turn the lights on. It’s not going to affect a polar bear either way.” With that, “the worried child’s face cleared, and the two girls went off to play.”

I think we can all agree that children shouldn’t worry that a polar bear will die every time they flip on a switch. And while it’s obvious that Gurdon is a global warming skeptic, I’m not writing today’s blog to help de-mystify climate science. What concerns me is the way she went on to indict “adults in the grip of environmental alarmism” who have “made a point of filling young lives with the threat of looming eco-catastrophe.” In particular, she pointed her finger at the “innumerable children’s books [that] sell a terrifying future to children as young as 4.”

One of the nonfiction books Gurdon singled out was Sarah L. Thomson’s “Where Do Polar Bears Live?” Part of the Let’s Read and Find Out Science series (suggested ages 5-9), this book had the effrontery to state that “If the Earth keeps getting warmer, the summer ice in the Arctic could melt completely by the time you grow up.” Seymour Simon’s latest collaboration with the Smithsonian, “Global Warming” (ages 5-9), earned Gurdon’s contempt for its cover, a breathtaking photograph of polar bears walking through melting ice.

Granted, polar bears are overused cover creatures these days. (And I say that as the author of a book with a polar bear on its cover, “Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World.”) It’s valid to criticize illustrations for anthropomorphism or to conclude that a book may have an outlook too bleak for its intended audience. But Gurdon stepped over the line with the following:

“Put aside the debate over climate science for a moment. These are adult matters, or at least they should be. It’s iniquitous for grown-ups—who themselves are roiled over the subject—to transfer their anxieties to children who are too young to wrap their minds around the issues.”

Iniquitous? Thomson is a respected children’s book author. So, of course, is Simon, who according to Kirkus “may have done more than any other living author to help us understand and appreciate the beauty of our planet and our universe.” Based on my own experiences writing about global warming, I expect that Thomson and Simon went out of their way to AVOID “transferring their anxieties” to their young readers. The more research I did, the more experts I consulted, the more knowledgeable I became about climate science, the more concerned I became about the rapid changes happening to our world right now, but I was still determined not to let my book be depressing and alarmist. The last thing I wanted to do was make global warming seem so scary that kids would feel hopeless about it. So I labored to explain the subject clearly and calmly, and to acknowledge that while climate change poses a serious challenge to people and other creatures around the planet, it’s also an opportunity for human innovation. I wanted to help kids feel empowered, not threatened, and I'm sure Thomson and Simon do, too.

I’m a mother, too. I understand the powerful instinct to protect one’s children. But I think Gurdon is underestimating kids, their optimism, and their ability to understand the basics of science, including climate science. Furthermore, after perusing some of her other columns, I suspect that Gurdon’s skepticism of global warming—and her criticism of these books and authors--is based less on an understanding of climate science than on her politics. But let’s put that debate aside for the moment. Accusing people of evil because they write about a topic that you find too controversial? Well, that’s just…sad. And turning the lights off when you leave a room? That's just smart.

Speaking of climate science, check out these terrific resources:

“How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming” by Lynn Cherry (paperback, March 2010)

Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on Earth

A great new web site.

Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis

National Snow and Ice Data Center

"The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge" (2010)

Ms. Frizzle tackles global warming!


Deborah Heiligman said...

I am so glad I read your post instead of reading the original article because I think my blood pressure would have shot sky high. Thank you for taking this on, Marfe.
Of course you're right that serious children's book authors work very hard not only at explaining serious subjects to children (without being condescending) but also at presenting said serious subjects in such a way that are age-appropriate and non-threatening. I am a firm believer that you can write about anything for kids as long as you do it clearly and age-appropriately. And both of those authors, and you too, of course, do so with beautiful language, lyricism, and humor when appropriate.
And, um, global warming? It's real. And serious. And we need the upcoming leaders of the world to take it seriously. Those upcoming leaders are our readers.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I agree with Marfe and Deb a thousand percent. Kids are much smarter than certain folks think, and there are plenty of age-appropriate ways to write books that tell the honest truth. In fact, the consequences can be dire if we do any less.

As an author, I have gotten into hot water by writing about several subjects that are verboten in some circles, but I don't plan to stop any time soon. Being honest is imperative. Hiding or diluting important information is dishonest - and downright dangerous. Global warming is a great example of a topic that HAS to be covered honestly and not swept under the rug, and Marfe has done an outstanding job in this regard. No wonder she posted her blog at 4:30 AM. It was worth the effort.

Vicki Cobb said...

Interesting that this columnist calls us authors "iniquitious" for discussing an issue that could create problems down-the-road when there are the more immediate iniquities of bullying, over-exposure to violence on TV news, over-exposure to sexy ads and fashion for ever younger girls that impact our children on a daily basis.

Linda Zajac said...

"These are adult matters, or at least they should be."

I totally disagree with the above statement. Kids are going to inherit this problem. As one scientist I spoke to said, "they are going to inherit a holy mess."

It is definitely a challenging controversial subject (but I like a challenge).

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Deb and Roz, thanks for chiming in. I thought of both of you as I wrote the blog, since you've also tackled topics that some people still consider a matter of debate, i.e. evolution.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Linda and Vicki, right on!

Seymour Simon said...

Thanks so much for your post (I've not read the original article). I write about global warming often on my blog and also talk about the ways that adults can bring kids into the conversation without alarming them. It seems as if the words "global warming" have become so much of a litmus test for politics that the reality of what's happening no longer is the point of their protests.

Marie said...

So interesting. As a school librarian and mother who tended to turn the tv news off when my now adult daughters were young, I do understand the worries about alarming young folks. Yet I do view my job in part as developing their social sensitivities so they can make a difference. And I am so thankful for superb science writers like Marfe and all who've chimed in who can distill very complex subjects for young (and old) readers. Keep up the good work!

Sarah said...

Hi, this is the author who had the "effrontery" to claim that summer sea ice in the Arctic is melting. Marfe, thank you for your able defense. I AM sorry that the child Gurdon encountered was having such upsetting feelings; I know that conscientious kids can get very worked up about such issues. That's part of why I included a section in the book of actions kids could take (yep, stuff just like turning off the lights) to help. It's my belief that the best way to help keep children from worrying about real, big issues like global warming is to give them something concrete to do--not to pat them on the head and tell them to go play since the grownups will take care of it. (If the grownups really were taking care of it, we'd be in much better shape!)

I hope that girl keeps turning out the lights when she leaves a room--and maybe, as she grows up, she'll find more and more things she can do to make her world better.

Loreen Leedy said...

I included a spread in The Shocking Truth about Energy about global warming because kids have heard about it already and need good information. It’s a daunting topic but there are many positive actions kids can take.