An intervention on environmental literature
Malek Chouayakh / A professor and a writer in children literature
My experience in writing environmental literature for children and young adults
This lecture was given at the Arab Children’s Book Publishers Forum in 2020, the 11th summit in Tunis, The City of Sciences. The summit was dedicated to children and young adults’ environmental literature.
We have been writing about the environment for a long time, they are called ‘environmental literature’. The term is new and catchy. It reassures the importance the environment has in our lives. The four elements: water, air, earth, and fire, were the main attraction of our ancient ancestors. I wrote about them, not intending on writing an environmental story but a story about life, our lives, and humanity in parallel with the environment and the four elements. The subject is significant, if we don’t write about it will outline our lives.
What I am offering is a small testimony from a writer who wrote a few children’s and YA stories. I will mainly focus on three stories, published in the series ‘The Bird’s Library’. The stories are ‘The Mistress of Colours’ published in 2006, ‘Salsabyla’ published in 2008, and ‘The Sea laughs from its Depths’ published in 2016.
First; the subject, or environment, my stories focused on.
The blessed tree: the duality of destruction and restoration.
Kids get attached to stories with animal characters in them, imagine when it is animals that children adore. In ‘The Mistress of colours’ where all characters are insects, I chose the butterfly as the protagonist. At the start of the story the butterfly, the mistress, takes a tour in the forest, the space in which the story takes place, along with her friend the red ladybug. In a linear narrative, a series of events correspond to reveal the challenges facing the forest. There is rubbish and negligence, fires, and fatal pests such as grasshoppers and toxic waste.
The story presented various descriptions of the destruction that besets the forest. After the dragon ‘Abu Lahab’ attacked the city burning it down and destroying it, the following description was given on page 13 to show an image of the area:
‘Many animals expired in the fire, rare insects that exist in no other forest. The ground covered in black snow, trees turned to ashes, and food was rare and infrequent.
Another descriptive passage was included after grasshoppers crept on the forest on page 23:
‘Grasshoppers were everywhere, the trees cried in pain, leafs cracked under their sharp careless teeth that can’t hear for the trees’ pleads.’
What beset the forest is not an act of God, but the consequence of the animals’ actions.
‘The Mistress of Colours’ confirmed this herself, explaining:
‘We caused this. The residents treated the forest selfishly. Each one of us wanted it to be theirs alone, and everyone neglected to protect it.’
The characters’ reactions varied. Some were careless and did not care about the forest. Some rather leave seeking peace and individual salvation. The third-party consciously and selfishly participated in the destruction.
The bitter struggle continued and the forest almost perished, but the trees screamed in horror:
‘Save the forest, save us, the forest gives you fresh air, save the trees, trees give you fruit and shade, we are dying, save us’
Is there a response?
In the story of ‘Salsabyla’ that mostly takes place in Sheik Al-Jalil, the subject was trees, this natural resource God gave our country for its diversity from the north of Tunis till its south. The olive tree remains a symbol of Tunis. It is a Perennial tree that prospers for hundreds of years, resists drought, and produces wealth, ‘The Green Gold’. ‘Salsabyla’ cared about the sacred olive tree and the dangerous destruction surrounding it. The story takes place when Salsabyla’s brother wanted to plant the small state in his specific way. He hired a private company to do the job using the most modern techniques. The supervising engineer decided to rip out the olive tree, and Salsabyla couldn’t dissuade him from it, she begged her brother recounting the tree’s many qualities:
‘Please brother don’t rip out the tree. Our grandfather planted it with his bare hands and watered it himself. It was his favourite, he slept under its shade. He used to say: I wish to be buried under it so it feeds off of my soil’
Salsabyla’s pleads did no good. The work process was rigorous and the engineering punctual. It did not leave space for other solutions, even if this tree represented the state, the engineer’s orders are never rejected. Machines attacked the tree in a tragic scene:
‘The supervisor’s face grimed, and he ordered the process to continue. Time went as slow as years, thick as a rock. Then the tree collapsed, murmurs rose, tears fell in sympathy while the machines kept on working. The tree was ducked into the earth, the resulting destruction was dreadful.
The destruction took another shape in Salsabyla’s story in the planting of trees using a foreign company. The trees were in identical boxes, in the same shape. They were fully grown, some even had fruit. We live in a world where everything is readily packed up for our consumption. The trees were planted and sprayed with different chemicals. Days passed slowly on the state, the soil did not accept these trees. Like a body rejecting a foreign body. The experiment was a failure, the fruit tasteless and the trees perished despite the chemical treatment. Nature has its laws, and increasing production does not justify leaving our agricultural traditions, or evolving them does not mean forgetting the seeds we planted, that proven its suitability in our environment, soil, land, air, and water.
Faris complains about what happened to the estate when he immigrated to the city and landed in a strange place.
‘The drought killed the plants, the factory is breathing poison and smothering all life, the desert is creeping in relentlessly. Selfishness destroyed our beautiful green land.’
In ‘The Delicious Apples’ story, destruction appears simple, trivial on the surface but it is anything but. As it has to do with our daily attitude, especially the child’s relationship with his/her environment. Sami, the boy, plucks unripe apples, and, as if that is not enough, he also smashes tree branches. The tree is in pain and cries out:
‘You have broken my branches and scattered my fruit away’ ‘The Delicious Apples’ page 6
The story brings up an issue I consider essential, education. We need environmental education to teach the child how to preserve his/her surroundings. To take care of the public garden, the trees beside the road, in school, the beaches, and different animals.
There are plenty of examples of destruction, what about restoration.
Examples are many, varied, and clear. ‘The Mistress of Colours’ gave her life to bring back the beauty of the forest. She refused to leave, she insisted on leading all insects to fight lesions off the forest, which threatens its life and being. So did the scarabs, the cleaning crew. They worked relentlessly to clean the forest and bring its shine back. Many helpful insects participated, believing the forest is their life.
In ‘Salsabyla’ restoration took another form. The honourable sheikh demanded the knight, who asked for his granddaughter Salsabyla’s hand, to plant one thousand trees. All guests were astonished by the request, believing the old man has lost his mind. While the Sheikh really wanted to revive the land and attract the youth to their land instead of immigrating to the city or working in the factory.
The second example of restoration is the call included in Salsabyla’s story for preserving land in its’ initial form, insuring fresh fruit. As if the story is presenting the fateful question, how can we preserve our seeds, soil and agricultural habits while ensuring wealth and self-sufficiency regarding food and nutrition.
We are delighted with the sound of music in the rivers and waterwheels. We over joy in the rain, and dewdrops weighing on the leaves and flowers. Is there anyone to protect this natural treasure?
(And We have made from water every living thing.) 21-30
Which emphasizes the importance of water in our life.
Water has a strong presence, since the first chapter of ‘Salsabyla’, her name already alludes to the clearance of water. Salsabel is the clear untainted drink. The girl would answer whoever asks of her parents, ‘My father’s the river and my mother’s the Rain cloud.
The beginning of the story references the fountain at the front door with water constantly streaming. Salsabyla and Faris would sit, sneaking glances at one another near the splashing fountain.
When the grandfather’s demands weren’t met, the water stream was cut off. In relation to industrial pollution because of the factory across the river unbalancing the nature in the estate. The balance wasn’t restored until solutions were made, some realistic like polluted water treatment in large ponds to protect the river. Some solutions were fantastical, such as a flock of turtles teaming together to pierce water out of the fountain, transforming water drops into a bursting stream.
The first appearance for the ‘Mistress of Colour’ accompanying her friend was linked to water, she is delighted with the existence of water:
‘I’ve found a small stream and he invited me to drink from its’ pure water.’
And in a horrific sight of fire, the response is clear and decisive as the ‘Mistress of Color’ hid behind the waterwheel waiting for the streaming water to stop the blazing fire, other insects sought out the water dams. Water burst to put out the fires, and to extenuate the scene even more a black cloud forms in the sky as heavy rain begins to fall.
Water, in the public perception, signifies wealth, prosperity and fertility. Its purity is basic in our lives. The protection of water is an environmental obligation, no matter how destructive torrents can be they are still a sign of good.
Third: I need fresh air.
Not to summarize, I refer to the points previously emphasized in the stories regarding clean air, which we cannot live without, exactly what the forest trees screamed:
‘Save the forest, it brings you fresh air’
Forests, also called the earth’s lungs as it rids us of Co2 and provides us oxygen that is essential for our lives. Air has been referenced in many of the stories chosen in this article:
The cleanliness factor of the background where we live has been emphasized, without such stenches spreading making life impossible.
Industrial pollution has been pointed at, along with the subsequent air pollution.
‘A suffocating smell stifled them, black poisonous clouds smoked out by filthy stacks’
The story of ‘The Mistress of Colours’ has a warning against deadly waste toxins, as if the ‘Mistress’ is warning us against the nuclear radiation some nations are still struggling from decades later. Starting with the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan. Toxic waste, whether due to manufacture or weapons of mass destruction, is a real threat to humanity. In a world of fighting nations, that might use weapons of mass destruction in spite of the terror our world lives.
The necessity of clean fresh air for healthy living has been discussed.
Forth: Who stops the blazing flames? Renewable energy or complete destruction.
Cultures differ on the significance of fire. Some cultures idolize it as a symbol of purity, while in others it’s hell and the worst of misfortunes. Since its invention it is used in cooking, melting metal, and a primary factor in our everyday lives, our economy, and trades.
In my writings, there are two contrasting images of fire. Sun, this blazing ball of fire, which in ‘The Little player’ seems a caring mother looking from above and filling the world with light and warmth. It is also an energy that can transform our lives. Clean renewable energy that can benefit humanity.
Fire has an ugly side, mass destruction. Wildfires are a nightmare for humanity, it is destroying earth’s vegetation cover, especially the fires of the Amazon forests and fires in Australia. This has strong effects on climate change and leads to global warming, the increase of greenhouse gases, and the temperature of the earth.
In the ‘Mistress of Colours’ I chose the name ‘Abu Lahab’ in reference to fire and wildfires, and characterized him in the story as a dragon that burns everything in its way. The story advocates saving the forest:
‘Abu Lahab has no mercy, fire is everywhere burning down all in its way. Save us Mistress’
Fifth: Sea is our life and joy.
‘Sea laughs from its depths’ is the only story of mine that begins with a dedication: to all who contributed to the cleaning of Chaffar beach sfax.
The story, a children’s story, takes place in a city that has lost its sea, it was destroyed by pollution. All of its characters, except for the last chapter, are children. They have the love of the sea, and an inspiration to bring life back to the beach in common. The story begins with a declarative statement shouted out by Tariq: ‘They stole the sea, they stole the sea.’ Followed by statements of confusion, hurt and anger: ‘When? Where did they hide it? Why? Who did this?’
And because the story relies on collective heroism, all children stood together and said:
‘We will defend the sea, the sea is our friend’ p17
So, what did these kids do to regain the beach its glamour?
From beginning to end there is a rich conversation that includes the present, past and present. As Rania tells of her grandfather
‘Beaches used to be calm, and busy with families coming to spend the summer and swim. The water used to be clean and deep.’ They ask her who stole the sea, she ignores them and continues her fawning: ‘Seagulls used to spread their white wings over the sea screaming ‘I love you sea. Fish used to swim in long stripes humming: ‘I love you sea.’
This is what the sea is, wealth, activity, and leisure.
The present, though, is too bleak. The children went to the sea to see what happened. It is described in a descriptive passage where the narrator described what actually taken place:
‘They find it completely destroyed. Filled with stacks of rocks, asphalt, and construction remains, rusty pipes, iron, and useless tools. A suffocating smell stifled them, black poisonous clouds smoked out by filthy stacks’ they were then surprised by trucks showing up to dump their loads of construction waste. As for the future, Rania was optimistic: ‘Granddad told me seagulls are coming back soon, they love a clean beach.’
The end of the story is a happy one, cleaning was over and men set summer umbrellas across the clean beach.
Second: Environmental literature for children and young adults, which speech?
Is it necessary for characters in children’s literature to be children themselves for the young reader to strive for reading and books? I’ll try to answer this by going back to one of the stories I’ve chosen. In ‘Sea laughs from its depths’ I chose for most characters to children. They performed a heroic act together, and conversed along the entire story giving it movement and liveliness, which is what young readers want.
In ‘Salsabyla’, a young adult story, Salsabyla and Faris were young adults. Both characters went through complex changes in line with the events of the story. But the story had characters of all ages, from the baby to the Sheikh.
It was different in ‘The Mistress of Colours’. As previously mentioned the story takes place in the incest world, and children are drawn to animal characters. Incest played the role of the side characters and the antagonists, and children interacted with them and especially with the main character of the Mistress which children loved, evident from a meeting I had with children and mentors.
Conflict is the engine of the story.
A story, whether it targets children or adults, is built on conflict, it is what moves the story from beginning to end. The young reader won’t continue reading if the events don’t excite them enough to see the conflict worsen, then resolved to the ending. Conflict in ‘Salsabyla’ was first in meeting the conditions on Al-Shekih of planting the trees. When Faris failed to fulfill these demands he had to fight to get his beloved wife back. Moving from one conflict to another until the end of the story.
Conflict in ‘The Sea Laughs from its Depths’ was against an invisible yet powerful force, present in the dirty beach and environment scene. The sea has disappeared behind mountains of construction remains, with stacks blowing filthy smoke onto the air. The fight was also uneven, with strong arms throwing trash and ruins out, against children. With the workers swearing at the kids to not get in the way of their work or for the cleaning to affect them. The ending is a happy one, the sea laughs from its depths delighted with the return of the umbrellas.
The world of ‘The Mistress of Colour’ is that of insects, a fun world that we can notice conflicting groups among it: the bees group rather fly away to find another home, scarabs, who are the cleaning crew of the forest, do their best in service of the forest but get mocked for it. The scarab, after being attacked and feeling the unfairness, says:
‘Is this what someone who gives their life and soul for the forest gets?’ the third group, a lazy group of cockroaches, headed by their black leader repeats their model: ‘We sleep a lot, sing a lot, and dance a lot.’
Among all groups there is a fun, enjoyable conflict that becomes more and more difficult until it’s a life and death situation against the dragon and locust swarms. The leader of this conflict, the Mistress, was able to revive the forest in an act of self-sacrifice.
In my writings, I chose the language to be easy. A young reader likes clarity and smooth language, it did contain subtle sarcasm and innuendos called for in some circumstances. I steered away from unusual language, pedantry doesn’t match with children’s literature.
Faris ran away on his way to the city. He started dreaming, asleep with his feet in the river’s water, and he saw a blooming tree with different shaped leaves, colourful flowers and pears, apples, pomegranates and grapes as fruit. Birds were skipping around in bliss. Children, beige, black, white, yellow and red, came to him, dancing and singing around the tree. He whispered to Salsabyla:
‘They are all my children. All these delicious fruits are theirs. These hummingbirds are singing for peace’
While in ‘The Little Player’ the dream was a big one. To make use of the environment without pollution or charge. The sun is making a manageable wish, she tells her two friends Lina and sunflower:
‘I always wished to benefit from the sun’s energy. Give it free of charge to desalinate seawater, plant the earth, fight poverty and hunger, but ignorance, stupidity, and selfishness prevented it.’
Sunflower has her own dream as well, she tells Lina after time has gotten the best of her:
‘Listen Lina, look at the middle of the big flower, it has many black seeds. Scatter it so birds feed on it and are no longer hungry.’ She adds: ‘I don’t want any birds or children to go hungry. I don’t want one child to die of hunger. Plant these seeds everywhere, plant trees in fields, deserts and mountains.’
Teach children and they will enjoy reading.
The young reader reads when it brings him/her joy. I relayed in my writing on few principles, that are essential in my work, and they are:
The image of women: her image appears bright and significant. Women play an important role in protecting the environment and the world around us. I choose, in my stories, female characters that have a role in protecting and warning against dangers, like the Mistress of colour, Salsabyla, and Rania.
The image of the grandfather: shows appreciation for the great work our ancestors did in appreciating trees, and nature and the necessity to continue on their lane. This does not dispute the conflict between the young who want to change, and conservative Sheikhs.
Humour: I used humour in my stories to attract the young reader, such as choosing the incest’s or childhood’s world. As well as some strange characters, like: Qasim, Salsabyla’s brother, or Sultan Maroush, and others.
Dialogue: dialogue plays an important part in uncovering bad behaviour, or reaching the message to the audience. It might be at the hand of minor characters, but it has a vital function in the story.
I conclude this intervention by saying, children’s literature is vital in building the emerging generation. It covers all subjects including the environment and the ocean. It is a school of life, feeds the child’s curiosity and ignites his/her imagination. It gives lessons to the child, the silent reader, who is actually a smart, keen reader that notices every detail. If this child interacts with the events of the story, considered it his/her world then trust that the writer succeeded in his work.
The writer’s job in environmental literature is huge. If he/she can refine their work using the structure, plot, and engagement through lovable characters, thrilling events, and natural dialogue then they are providing a great service to the environment, nature and society, and delivering their message.