Environmental activism through international narrative non-fiction
World Kid Lit champion and literary translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp introduces four illustrated non-fiction books exploring environmental activism from various global perspectives, introducing conservationists and change-makers from Uruguay, Ecuador, Vietnam, and Kenya…
Alongside my work as a translator of children’s books, I spend a lot of time advocating for and raising awareness of children’s books from around the world, especially during #WorldKidLitMonth in September, but also year-round as part of Project World Kid Lit. There are many reasons to read children’s books from beyond our borders, and stories first written in other languages and translated into English, but for me the most compelling reason is joining the global conversation about how we might – together – protect our planet and safeguard a fair and sustainable future for all our planet’s inhabitants.
We do of course have some amazing non-fiction for children about environmental activism, but combating climate change and protecting biodiversity is a task facing all countries, and a challenge we can only overcome by working together. The countries facing the worst impact from climate change are not always those with the loudest voices on the world stage, and yet we need a global conversation where everyone’s voice is heard, no matter how rich or poor their country is. Reading picture books and graphic novels in translation from other languages is a way for children to grow up being comfortable with seeing things from different global perspectives.
In these illustrated, narrative non-fiction stories from four continents, we see how environmental issues impact others, hear new ways of thinking about the world’s problems, and see how we can – as global citizens – work together across borders to protect the world’s resources for all its inhabitants: humans, animals, and trees!
Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
by Franck Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty, translated from French by Dominique Clément, published by Charlesbridge, 2017. First published in France, as Wangari Maathai la femme qui plante.
This is a beautifully illustrated biography of the life of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, for her work planting trees in Kenya, and campaigning for environmental protection. Growing up in rural Kenya, she learned from her mother that “A tree is worth more than its wood” and in the 1970s she started the Green Belt Movement to reverse the environmental damage to her country from deforestation. A strong and outspoken feminist leader, she faced imprisonment and worse, but she was never discouraged and persevered with her work planting trees, encouraging Kenyans to give seedlings to neighbouring tribes as a gesture of peace and friendship. Also known as Mama Miti, ‘mother of trees’, the environmental-protection laws she fought to introduce have had an essential impact in terms of protecting the Congo basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world.
When My Dad Went to the Jungle
by Gusti, illustrated by Anne Decis, translated from Spanish by Elisa Amado; published by Greystone Kids, 2020. First published in Argentina, as Mi papá estuvo en la selva.
This is more of a story with non-fiction elements, or we might call it narrative non-fiction for the very young. An ebullient storyteller, Theo recounts his father’s trips to the Amazon rainforest, his interactions with the flora and fauna, the locals, and the protector spirits, all layered over with the observations of a young boy with a keen sense of curiosity, and humour. Starting with the advice that you should always ask for permission to visit a place, the book is imbued with a tone of respect for a traditional way of life and for nature. The book stems from Argentinian author Gusti’s experiences volunteering for a conservation project in Ecuador studying the harpy eagles; when they’re found in a region, it can be declared a nature reserve and protected from logging and other damaging activity. The book ends with a factual section about Amazonia, the vast forested region across Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador, that the world depends on for survival.
The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out
by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa, translated from Japanese by Andrew Wong. Published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2020.
An unusual and fun picture book, this is an illustrated retelling of a historic speech at the UN Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012, given by José Mujica, the president of Uruguay at the time. Known as “the world’s poorest president” for choosing to live a modest lifestyle and to give away 90% of his presidential salary to charity, he was widely admired in Japan where this book was first created. It was when leaders from around the globe gathered in Brazil in 2012 for the UN climate summit, saying the same old things over and over, that José Mujica stood up to deliver his bold speech about human happiness and sustainability. He urged the world to question the endless consumption that has led to the planet’s environmental crisis, and encouraged us to find forms of happiness that don’t involve buying endless disposable goods and exploiting the world’s natural resources. This is a book full of humour and charm in the illustrations, and an empowering spirit in the words.
Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear
by Trang Nguyễn, illustrated by Jeet Zdung, translated from Vietnamese by Trang Nguyễn, published by Macmillan. First published Vietnam as Chang hoang dã – Gấu.
Written by Vietnamese scientist and environmental activist Trang Nguyen, this is a lushly drawn manga-style graphic novel based on the author’s experiences as a young conservationist working to protect the sun bear, a local species at threat from habitat destruction, poaching and illegal wildlife trade. It’s a highly visual narrative told with rich, detailed illustration, full of action and suspense, with rainforest insects, reptiles and mammals creeping and leaping out of the page at you. Blending science, ecology, and gripping storytelling, this is a compelling introduction to wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia, making the case for global collaboration to end wildlife trade and protect vulnerable ecosystems. The author Nguyen donates all her royalties from sales to the conservation organisation Free The Bears and her own charity WildAct Vietnam.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp translates books of all kinds into English from Arabic, German and Russian; she also co-translates Ukrainian and Maltese children’s books. She has translated children’s books from Germany, Morocco, Palestine, Russia and Syria. Of all the non-fiction books she has worked on, her favourite is How Do Bridges Work? by Roman Belyaev (B Small, 2020), a fascinating tour of the world’s oldest, biggest and most ambitious and most iconic bridges: how they were designed and built, and some of the cultural stories associated with them.