Helping Young People Imagine a Future of Climate Solidarity
Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms
“They streamed out of their schools, bubbling with excitement. Little trickles of them flowed from side streets into grand avenues, where they mingled with other streams of children and teens. Chanting, chatting, dressed in everything from crisp school uniforms to leopard leggings, the kids formed rushing rivers in dozens of cities around the world. They marched by the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands.”
That’s how Naomi Klein begins How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other. This desperately needs to be our future: everywhere on Earth, “rushing rivers” of student climate justice activists — protecting the planet and each other.
Increasingly, educators are equipping young people to analyze the social roots of the climate emergency, its unequal impact throughout the world, and activist strategies to address it.
For all this, we need stories.
Three new young adult novels appreciate the severity of climate change but also celebrate young people’s growing consciousness and their work to make a difference.
The Mystery Woman in Room Three
The Mystery Woman in Room Three, by Aya de León, is a compelling, fast-paced story set in near-future, climate-changed Florida. The heroines are two Dominican, undocumented high school students — smart, brave, and committed to do the right thing. The mystery: Who is that frail woman in the Shady Orchards Nursing Home? Is she being held against her will? Is she drugged? As the truth begins to emerge, they team up with Sunrise Movement activists and other young people of conscience. (“Us four teenagers are the only ones who know about a plot to change the course of history.”) The novel is about more than climate change; it addresses immigration rights, racism, the Green New Deal, and youth activism. But the book is also a meditation on how gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, race, and social class shape young people’s relationships.
The Mystery Woman in Room Three is not published in print, but is currently available for free download at Orion Magazine, a welcome gesture from the always-valuable Orion. In an online interview at Orion, author Aya de León describes one of her motives for the book: “I wanted to write a story about winning in the climate crisis. So much of what we call climate fiction takes place in a dystopic future, after human beings have failed to solve the crisis in the current era. I wanted to write a story set in the here and now where people — everyday people, and young women of color in particular — are the heroes that save the day.”
Paradise on Fire
Adaugo — Addy — is originally from Nigeria. She was orphaned when her parents died in a fire and came to live with her Grandma Bibi in the Bronx. We come to admire and love the remarkable Addy as we join her summer sojourn to Wilderness Adventures in Northern California with other African American teenagers from New York and New Jersey — not all of whom are as delighted to be there as she is. Addy is obsessed with maps and mazes — escape routes. She finds a home in the forest — and gradually a community with other young people. A summer paradise. And then there is fire.
Prompted by the 2018 Camp Fire that burned more than 150,000 acres and almost completely destroyed entire communities, including Paradise, California, author Jewell Parker Rhodes’ gently paced novel segues into a thrilling narrative, in which Addy and friends attempt to escape the conflagration. Wildfires have joined the terrible pantheon of climate change-produced disasters. The tense and perilous trek of the young people of Paradise on Fire [Little, Brown] becomes a metaphor for what all of us will need to confront the climate crisis: bravery, imagination, tenacity, solidarity. As Addy concludes: “See the whole. Map the whole. Hard doesn’t mean impossible.”
(Teachers who share their “teaching climate justice” stories at the Zinn Education Project — bit.ly/ZEPFreeBook — can receive a free copy of Paradise on Fire.)
In Natalia Sylvester’s 2020 novel Running [Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president of the United States. He is a Republican. He is a U.S. senator from Florida. And his daughter, 15-year-old Mariana, is not so keen about being a prop in his campaign. At first, she simply objects to the invasion of her privacy by prying media, and parents too eager to show her off: “How much more of our lives will we give up before it’s no longer worth it?”
But as Mariana connects with young activists in her high school’s PODER social action club, she begins to awaken to issues in South Florida — and the world: the threat to clean water posed by the wealthy’s version of “development,” feminism, homophobia, class inequality, gentrification, and climate change. No, most 15-year-olds’ fathers do not run for president. But it’s impossible not to be drawn in as Mariana’s growing critical awareness leads her further and further from her father’s empty campaign slogans — and inexorably toward a decision between obedience to her parents or to her conscience. As Miami’s polluted water becomes the key issue of the campaign, Mariana concludes: “There is no such thing as both sides when one side is drinking contaminated water and the other side is contaminating it.”
Mariana’s insight about the bankruptcy of “both sides-ism” is as true for our curriculum as it is for a political campaign between people who want clean water and people who want enormous profits. Educators who care about the future of nature and humanity should not be timid when it comes to encouraging students to come to see themselves as activists. When our students grasp what is at stake today, it is not manipulation or propaganda that drives them to activism. It is common sense.
We need more books that celebrate young people who find themselves as they come to consciousness and commitment.
If you want to get more articles like this one — and to support independent journalism — subscribe now to Rethinking Schools magazine.