“Cli-fi” is the abbreviation for climate fiction, fictional stories that deal with climate change in some way. Not surprisingly – given escalating worldwide anxiety about the environment – this is a rapidly growing literary genre.
But why fiction and not just fact? Stories are an age-old way of passing on wisdom and reaffirming values. When done well, fiction “sticks” and inspires. By identifying with story characters, readers can “see” new worlds, gain empathy, use their imaginations and grapple with dilemmas before they need to confront them in real life. Today, climate change stories are top of mind because we already see the effects of a changing planet: extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme winds, record-breaking flooding and rapid, unpredictable weather shifts.
A recent CBC “What on Earth” segment calls cli-fi “a growing literary genre that, at its best, can inspire hope and spur action.”
For kids, cli-fi books are arguably even more important. The purpose of these books is not so much to educate kids about climate change – they are already painfully aware of the problem. Rather, cli-fi offers examples of characters who are fighting to make a difference, and in doing so, provides a beacon of hope.
And if there’s one thing kids need today, it’s hope. A ground-breaking 2021 Nature Briefing survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries points to overwhelming eco-anxiety, with nearly 60 percent of kids surveyed saying they are ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried.’ When asked how climate change makes them feel, the most common responses were ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘anxious’, ‘angry’, and ‘powerless.’
Cli-fi provides an opportunity for kids to identify with young protagonists who are taking an active role in protecting planet Earth. At the same time, cli-fi can shine a light on scientific breakthroughs and accomplishments.
And when eco-books step a toe into the territory of fantasy – or land there with both feet – they might even inspire more innovation. Because what’s to say that something that has not yet been invented isn’t possible? Science fiction ideas that came true include 3-D printers, video calls, driverless cars and more, according to Stratostar research.
What makes good cli-fi for kids?
Like sci-fi, this newer genre must have a connection to science. But there are differences between the two types of fiction. Where sci-fi authors can invent entire universes, this is not entirely so with cli-fi. This genre must have climate change on Earth as bedrock even if it takes leaps from there.
Addressing the reality of climate change in kids’ books can be tricky. How does one include enough climate science to be motivating without being heavy-handed? And how to avoid sinking into doom and gloom, only adding to eco-anxiety?
The other aspect of cli-fi is of course fiction or fantasy. This is where writers get to spread their wings. This can also be a bit tricky, of course. The fantasy must be believable, in context of the science, but still contain the magic that kids love.
Finally, good cli-fi should be entertaining, like any other piece of fiction.
In my books, I tried to strike this balance by creating a fictional place – the Under-Under World – where scientists deliberately retreated to find solutions for the world above, with global warming at the top of the list. The Under-Under World is a pristine paradise, like Earth was before humans left their mark. The colony’s ruler is The Great Hildinski, the last survivor of an ancient civilization, who brings wisdom gained from the demise of her culture. The central conflict in the book is the battle for pure water – affecting both Under-Under and the world above.
All of the stories move quickly from “what is” to “what could be”. In an attempt to entertain and inspire, they blend environmental fiction with adventure and coming-of-age issues: self-respect, confidence, trust and compassion. Whether I’ve been successful in this balancing act in my books I will leave to my young readers to judge.
Why do I write fantasy eco-books?
Like many authors, I spent a good part of my childhood curled up in a chair with a book (and in my case, also a purring cat.) I read everything I could but found nothing as intoxicating as fantasy – that wonderful, invisible sliding door between one world and the next. So the fantasy part was obvious.
But as I embarked on writing this series, I found that I was actually even more interested in the science than in the fantasy. To put my stories together, I had to research subjects as diverse as salmon spawning to the magnetic quality of minerals to the moon’s orbit. I became an extremely late-blooming science junkie – although (full disclosure) I have absolutely no scientific qualifications and questionable aptitude. Just newly-sparked curiosity about endless possibilities.
Why books for 9 to 12 year-olds?
The Secrets of the Under-Under World series is intended for the preteen age group, partly because that’s the age my goddaughter was when I started writing the first book – backstory here (link to Blog 1) But I also believe that this is an extremely vulnerable segment. ‘Tweeners aren’t little kids anymore but nor are they teenagers. In this in-between zone of adolescence, the search for one’s own identify is key – and not always easily established, given peer pressure and other challenges.
For kids who are already struggling to find themselves, eco-anxiety could be overwhelming. My hope is that the notion of kids as heroes – overcoming obstacles, finding solutions, and leading the way – might offer some comfort and inspiration. And by gaining insight into the characters’ internal struggles and fears, they might feel less alone.
My cli-fi series for kids: What’s next?
Here’s what I’m planning for the Secrets of the Under-Under World series. Creatures, the second book in the series, will launch in Q1 2022. The third book, Time, is scheduled to launch prior to the end of 2022, followed by the final book in the series in 2023.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on cli-fi for kids. What do you think is important? How do you react to the themes I’ve raised in my book? How do you believe we can further inspire children?
And if you’re an author who also writes in this genre, I’d love to make a connection.