Thursday, 9 December 2021

When the Wind Blows harder - Anne Rooney

Rock-a-bye baby on the tree-top,
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall;
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

In 1982, Raymond Briggs (of Snowman fame) published a dark graphic novel on nuclear apocalypse. The protagonists, the mature couple Hilda and Jim Bloggs, prepare themselves and their house for nuclear blast following ridiculous government advice, a thinly veiled reference to the UK government's Protect and Survive. So Jim paints the windows white and they try to buy in food to tide them over the first few pro-blast days, but they remain blissfully ignorant of what the impending disaster really means. Inevitably, their preparations are of no use. The end is bleak.

For those who don't remember the Cold War, it really did seem that the end was nigh. And the government really did promote ridiculously pointless preparations, apparently in an attempt to make people feel, if not empowered, at least not as completely powerless as they actually were. When the Wind Blows was a bold thing to do. Graphic novels were very much seen as a children's genre and Briggs very much as a children's writer/illustrator. But this is deep social commentary and truth-telling of a type that almost everyone shied away from, and not just in talking to children.  

And here we are again. I'm not alone in being incredibly frustrated at how any writing about climate crisis for children has to be sugar-coated. We can't present the truth, it's too hard to bear. We can't tell children their world is doomed on our present trajectory. We can't show what will happen if we do as little as we are doing now. We can't show them despair. So we (me too, I've followed the editorial line) water it down and present little projects like making bird feeders from old plastic bottles and posters encouraging grown-ups to do their recycling. There is some sense in this, though not enough. We don't know the circumstances of children who will be reading our books. Not all of them will have a knowledgeable adult to talk to about this, or even a reasssuring adult to give them a cuddle when they're scared. As distant authors and editors, we don't want to be responsible for despair and self-harm. Nor do we want to do nothing. And we don't want to carry on writing our 'green' books that feel increasingly like Protect and Survive. I'll let you into a secret: we know that dying your old t-shirt won't save the planet. Still, publishers don't want children to be scared.

But, frankly, scared is appropriate. People who aren't scared don't act. It's time to stop lying. Young people know what's going on with the climate. Let's say (like When the Wind Blows), 11+ is the point whent it's appropriate to remove the kid gloves. We need When the Wind Blows for climate change. It's time. I doubt Raymond Briggs, at 87, will want to do it. I'd do it (not the illustrations, obviously), though I doubt any publisher would take it on.* I spend most of my time writing about science (incuding both climate and mass extinction) and know exactly how ridiculous most of what we present on this is.  

Climate catastrophe is as terrifying a place as nuclear apocalypse. Interestingly, fiction can go there. There is plenty of climate-armageddon fiction. Fiction is doing its proper thing, inciting pity and terror. But should we be relying on fiction to educate young people about climate change? Isn't that what non-fiction is *supposed* to do? Why are non-fiction writers being locked out of the most important topic of our age? Come on, publishers, let us write honestly about the climate crisis. Let us give the background that supports the wonderful climate fiction and shows that it's not just science fiction but science and fiction — with a fast-decreasing proportion of fiction.

Like nuclear war, climate crisis makes us feel impotent. What can we individually do that will help? It's not us — the ordinary people — who can make a difference, we feel. It's not true. People persuade themselves of that because they don't want to give up their most damaging behaviours, but we've already seen how consumer pressure is pushing manufacturers to take notice at last.

The most important thing we can do, as writers, as teachers, as publishers, is to speak out honestly. Because when the bough breaks, we all fall, even the babies.

* I am proposing this to one of my publishers — the one I feel is most likely to take something risky. We'll see how it goes

All images except Protect and Survive from When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982. Used without permission, but in a good cause

Anne Rooney

 Latest book:






Lonely Planet, The Dinosaur Book, 2021



Catherine Butler said...

Excellent post. It brought to mind a stall I saw in my local shopping centre recently, where people (mostly children - because the answers were then stuck to little mechanical animals) were being invited to identify "the most important thing to do about the climate crisis". It wasn't a fill-in question, though; there were only certain options available, and they were all things like "Recycle plastic," "Use public transport" and similar (wholly laudable) things that individuals could do. I felt, and said, that this framing made it seemed as if governments and large corporations had no role and responsibility, and that the things on the list - while we should certainly be doing them - could also be used as a distraction to keep us from looking to the people with power to make real systemic change. *COPOUT26 cough cough*

Susan Price said...

Completely agree with this post. Self-publishing?

Jenny Vaughan said...

Thank you Anne. Excellent.

I don’t think self-publishing is the answer, though, partly because of the costs (which would be astronomical, though might be possible with crowd-funding) but mainly because of (lack of) reach. But might be worth looking at some of the leftie publishers, even though they don’t have much money …

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this post, Anne.
Point well made.

Nina Oaken said...

Thank you, Anne, this needs to be widely shared. Actually no, it needs to be written for The TES and for mainstream media.
I see themes, though mostly dystopian/ post apocalyptic representation in the alternative comic and animated alternative media my kids and their peers watch. There's more than a market for it, there's a need.
Self- publishing or eco publishing reaches an already primed audience (or echo chamber). Publishers need to go boldly mainstream. You are absolutely right, young people are concerned and these discussions have go beyond niche.

Andrew Preston said...

".... For those who don't remember the Cold War, it really did seem that the end was nigh. And the government really did promote ridiculously pointless preparations, apparently in an attempt to make people feel, if not empowered, at least not as completely powerless as they actually were.".

I disagree. In terms of the media available to the general public, I recall no constant harping on about impending nuclear war. Of course, everyone was made
aware of who the 'bad guys' were, ie the Soviet Union, and communists in general. And there were the occasional references to things like the 3 minute warning of a nuclear strike on Britain. That is, we'd have 3 minutes to do all the things we wanted or needed to before a blinding flash and evaporation. ( Of course, there was the stuff that went on in the background, nuclear shelters for those with power etc. ).

But certainly, at the point, mid 60's onwards, when I started taking an interest in what was happening in life beyond "What's for tea, Mum..?", it seemed to me that there was the general recognition that there would be no winners in a nuclear war. That is 'Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD'. And, looking back, "When The Wind Blows ', published in 1982, was about 15 years out of it's time.

That isn't the case with climate change, it's here, it's now.

Emilia Carmilla said...

I know who could do the illustrations for you! You absolutely should contact Jackie Morris.