Piers Torday: How to write eco-fiction for children


19 August 2021
Young readers are never too small to make a difference, says the author of the Last Wild series
Piers Torday: How to write eco-fiction for children Images

As I write this, fires are raging across the Mediterranean and America’s West Coast. Europe just recorded its hottest ever summer weather. There have been devastating floods from Germany to China. The IPCC recently released its starkest report on the chances of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees (spoiler summary: not that great.) And we are still living through the worst global pandemic for a hundred years, the jumping of a zoonotic virus from animals to humans as much a crisis of the environment as one of public health.

We all hope and strive for the best, but who will live through this brave new climate? Our children, and their children. I wrote my latest book, The Wild Before, as a response to Greta Thunberg’s urgent global call to arms, that inspired so many young people across the world to march for action on climate change. The story, about one very brave little hare determined to save his precious home valley from a terrible fate, is a prequel to my Last Wild trilogy, set in a more dystopian universe.

Those books told the story of what might happen if the mass extinction of animals currently underway was allowed to reach its grim conclusion. The young hero, Kester, discovers he can speak to animals and using this special power, strains every sinew to save those left alive - and in doing so, save the world. I wanted the prequel to be about what we might lose, if we don’t act now.

As well as a page-turning adventure, it is also my love song to the British countryside, through the seasons of the year. I wanted to focus, for young readers, on the beauty of the nature we can appreciate right now. From bird song to wild flowers, trees to hedgerows, hares to butterflies, I think the first step in writing about our natural world is to celebrate it. I want my readers to care for our ecosystem almost as a character in itself.

But I also need to acknowledge that the wildlife and plants I foreground in the story are under threat. Children are increasingly well educated about climate change at school - I know this from the responses I receive to The Last Wild - and whether we like it or not, increasingly connected to our fast-changing world through screens and devices. They are our children and when dealing with subjects that can also make adults anxious, such as climate change, of course sensitivity and thought is required. That, however, is not the same as wrapping everything difficult in cotton wool.

One of the reasons I enjoy using animals as main characters is not just that they are under threat from climate change themselves, but that for young readers, they provide an appealing yet vicarious guide to some tougher adult experiences. Children often, I believe, respond to animals positively in fiction not just because they are instinctively caring, but that in some way they identify with these small, vulnerable creatures that no other humans listen to. I put my hares and other characters through considerable peril. It is thrilling and occasionally frightening - but the child can take one step back because ultimately it is an animal, however beautiful and sacred, not another child facing the trauma.

As well as celebrating what we have, and not flinching from the tougher side of the climate crisis, I also work very hard to provide an optimistic message of hope (which can be a challenge, even for the most positive writer, given the facts on the ground!) I don’t just mean a vague sense of hoping for the best, but authentic, powerful, resilient hope which comes from confronting fear in difficult situations. Little-Hare’s beloved fath-hare appears to his son in a dream, and counsels that to overcome the fate awaiting his fellow beasts, he needs to seek out the rare 'flower of hope' - which he duly does.

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I may have unintentionally written a novel featuring a plague, floods and wildfires that publishes into a world where such horrors are no longer remote nightmares but reality. However, the wave of hope that will carry Little-Hare and his friends onto a better world is deeply intentioned. When I write eco-fiction for children, I don’t want them to be anxious. But I do want them to be active and engaged, and I want them to know - like my hare, little for his kind, that they are never, ever, too small to make a difference.

The Wild Before by Piers Torday is published by Quercus Children’s Books (hardback, £12.99)


Read more about writing climate change fiction for children from Hannah Gold, author of The Last Bear.