26 February 2021
Hannah Gold, author of The Last Bear, talks bout the role of children's writing in shaping a better future
When it came to writing my debut middle-grade novel, The Last Bear, I decided to write about all the things I loved most in the world – the planet, wildlife and that mysterious, unspoken and almost magical bond that exists between children and animals.
In truth, I’m not sure I deliberately set out to write a climate change book for children, but once I had chosen a polar bear as the main character (or in truth, once he had chosen me), it was impossible to write about him without talking about the melting ice caps. Not just the fact they are melting at an extraordinarily frightening pace, but the effect this is having on all our Arctic animals, especially the polar bears who rely on the ice caps for survival.
When looking at where to set the book, I stumbled across a real-life island named Bear Island, because of the polar bears who once lived there. It’s a tiny island, which does in fact have a weather station (but not staffed by one man and his daughter!), and is situated halfway between the mainland of Norway and an archipelago of islands, much closer to the North Pole, called Svalbard. Not that long ago, polar bears would use the winter sea ice to roam from Svalbard to Bear Island, hunting for seals. But these days, because the winter sea ice has retreated so much, polar bears can no longer reach the island that carries their name.
And once I found that out – there really was only one story to tell. How eleven-year-old April rescues a lonely, starving polar bear, stranded a long way from home. On the surface it’s a story of adventure, friendships – love even, but dig a little deeper and it’s so much more.
At the time of writing, back in 2019, there was a lot of dystopian middle-grade and young adult fiction on the market – and a lot of it was very good. But I wanted to write something that was set in the current day and that instilled a more hopeful, positive message – that it’s not too late. Climate change is scary. There is no getting around that, whatever angle you put on it. I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and want to weep when I think of what we are doing to the planet. That’s why I feel there is a huge responsibility for authors to find the right tone when writing for a younger audience. More than ever, and especially after the world events of the past year, we need to be very mindful of the emotions we might induce via our words.
We also need to be very careful of implying that it’s solely up to children to fix the problem. It isn’t. It’s up to us to model a healthier, more sustainable way of living; if we can normalize that through fiction, then all the better.
Given a choice, I would rather not be writing this genre at all. I’d far rather live on a healthier planet. But here we find ourselves, and the band of authors writing climate fiction books is growing all the time. In fact, very recently, YA author Lauren James (The Quiet at the End of the World and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe) set up the Climate Fiction Writers League. The league has over 100 international published authors, specifically wanting to make a difference through books, and cites that ‘Fiction is one of the best ways to inspire passion, empathy and action in readers. Our works raise awareness of climate change.’
My dream is that other authors, as well as publishers and booksellers, will see the popularity of this genre and realise that together, we can all play our part in shaping a better future. If we can inject hope back into children’s hearts, if we can inspire and educate them to take better care of our planet than we have done, then I sincerely hope that books like ours can make a difference. And maybe along the way, save the polar bears too.
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold is published by HarperCollins Children's Books
Read more tips on writing for children from Writing Magazine Creative Writing Course tutor Stephanie Baudet.