“Leaving the lights on won’t actually kill a polar bear.” This headline for a column in the July 4, 2010 issue of the “Washington Examiner,” a free daily paper found at most DC Metro stations, caught the eye of a friend of mine. She tore out the column, scribbled “here’s another view” at the top of the page, and left it on my front porch. It’s got me a little worked up. It’s not every day you see the word “iniquitous” used to describe the motives of children’s book authors.
Meghan Cox Gurdon began her piece with the story of two young girls in her kitchen, one of whom asked Gurdon to “please tell [the other child] that global warming isn’t real.” When Gurdon asked why, the girl responded, “Someone told her that if she leaves a light on, a polar bear would die.”
“Nonsense,” Gurdon told the child. “Grown-ups are investigating global warming and arguing about it. The one thing I can tell you is that you shouldn’t be afraid to turn the lights on. It’s not going to affect a polar bear either way.” With that, “the worried child’s face cleared, and the two girls went off to play.”
I think we can all agree that children shouldn’t worry that a polar bear will die every time they flip on a switch. And while it’s obvious that Gurdon is a global warming skeptic, I’m not writing today’s blog to help de-mystify climate science. What concerns me is the way she went on to indict “adults in the grip of environmental alarmism” who have “made a point of filling young lives with the threat of looming eco-catastrophe.” In particular, she pointed her finger at the “innumerable children’s books [that] sell a terrifying future to children as young as 4.”
One of the nonfiction books Gurdon singled out was Sarah L. Thomson’s “Where Do Polar Bears Live?” Part of the Let’s Read and Find Out Science series (suggested ages 5-9), this book had the effrontery to state that “If the Earth keeps getting warmer, the summer ice in the Arctic could melt completely by the time you grow up.” Seymour Simon’s latest collaboration with the Smithsonian, “Global Warming” (ages 5-9), earned Gurdon’s contempt for its cover, a breathtaking photograph of polar bears walking through melting ice.
Granted, polar bears are overused cover creatures these days. (And I say that as the author of a book with a polar bear on its cover, “Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World.”) It’s valid to criticize illustrations for anthropomorphism or to conclude that a book may have an outlook too bleak for its intended audience. But Gurdon stepped over the line with the following:
“Put aside the debate over climate science for a moment. These are adult matters, or at least they should be. It’s iniquitous for grown-ups—who themselves are roiled over the subject—to transfer their anxieties to children who are too young to wrap their minds around the issues.”
Iniquitous? Thomson is a respected children’s book author. So, of course, is Simon, who according to Kirkus “may have done more than any other living author to help us understand and appreciate the beauty of our planet and our universe.” Based on my own experiences writing about global warming, I expect that Thomson and Simon went out of their way to AVOID “transferring their anxieties” to their young readers. The more research I did, the more experts I consulted, the more knowledgeable I became about climate science, the more concerned I became about the rapid changes happening to our world right now, but I was still determined not to let my book be depressing and alarmist. The last thing I wanted to do was make global warming seem so scary that kids would feel hopeless about it. So I labored to explain the subject clearly and calmly, and to acknowledge that while climate change poses a serious challenge to people and other creatures around the planet, it’s also an opportunity for human innovation. I wanted to help kids feel empowered, not threatened, and I'm sure Thomson and Simon do, too.
I’m a mother, too. I understand the powerful instinct to protect one’s children. But I think Gurdon is underestimating kids, their optimism, and their ability to understand the basics of science, including climate science. Furthermore, after perusing some of her other columns, I suspect that Gurdon’s skepticism of global warming—and her criticism of these books and authors--is based less on an understanding of climate science than on her politics. But let’s put that debate aside for the moment. Accusing people of evil because they write about a topic that you find too controversial? Well, that’s just…sad. And turning the lights off when you leave a room? That's just smart.
Speaking of climate science, check out these terrific resources:
“How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming” by Lynn Cherry (paperback, March 2010)
Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on Earth
A great new web site.
Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis
National Snow and Ice Data Center
"The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge" (2010)
Ms. Frizzle tackles global warming!