Today’s kids have the power and skills to change the world. But when it comes to topics like the climate crisis, reaching children in a way that sparks their interest — and empowers them to believe they can truly make a difference — can be tricky.
“Kids need to hear about climate change. But the greatest danger is that it just sounds so dreadful and people tune it out, and that’s bad news,” explained Anita Sanchez, author of the new book “MELTDOWN: Discover Earth’s Irreplaceable Glaciers and Learn What You Can Do to Save Them,” designed for young readers ages 8 to 12.
Featuring emotional and informative illustrations by Brooklyn-based artist Lily Padula, the book taps into the sheer beauty and wonder of the world’s glaciers, paired with accessible science to give kids tools they can use to help save them.
Sanchez was on a “typical tourist trip to Iceland,” visiting the Vatnajokull glacier — Iceland’s largest ice cap — when she realized there was a children’s book in what she was witnessing.
“We were on the moraine, the land near the glacier,” said Sanchez, who worked for 25 years for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and has written 19 books on environmental science.
“It was muddy, dirty and grey. Then, when we came to the side of the glacier itself, there was a sense of climbing up onto the back of a big animal.” Glacier mice, which are clumps of moss Sanchez said looked like “green furry ping pong balls,” were being blown across the landscape in herd-like formations.
“There was this freshness to the air, there was a small crevasse you could look into and see this really deep sapphire blue, down deep,” she said. “I came off the glacier going, ‘There’s gotta be a book here somewhere. ‘”
At first, she thought she’d create a picture book on the topic, before realizing she “had to go bigger and deeper for slightly older kids.” Middle-grade students, she decided, were the ideal audience to reach.
“They’re old enough to really take in some tough science but still young enough to have that enthusiasm and love of animals and adventure that some of us lose when we reach adulthood,” Sanchez said. “Kids need to get excited about the wild places of the world before they become activists to help preserve them.”
Speaking with CNN, Sanchez shared how she reaches out to young readers about the climate crisis, how she’s inspired by ecosystems that glaciers support and how adults can inspire the young people in their lives to act, too, in the most accessible ways.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: How did you make the concept of climate change relatable and interesting to younger readers?
Anita Sanchez: This is the toughest book I’ve ever written because there’s a lot of tough science — what climate change is, why it’s happening, and what the evidence is that glacial melt is human caused. So I tried to imagine I’m talking to readers rather than writing a textbook. I approached the book and topic like a fiction writer.
The first paragraph describes the sounds — crunch, crunch, crunch — your crampons make as you walk in the hard-packed snow of a glacier. There’s the sense of the glacier being something alive. You don’t actually feel it moving, but there’s this sense that it’s different from a big pile of snow. You get the sense that it’s powerful and that you’re in a dramatic place. It’s like being on the back of a big frozen animal.
Throughout the book, I try to make the glacier a sort of character, even though the book is non-fiction. Indigenous people who have lived with glaciers have beliefs that glaciers speak and that they can hear us. When you hear the sounds they make, it’s impressive.
I was visiting Northern Cascades National Park in Washington state in early May, when the (annual spring) melt had started, and there was crackling and roaring and a big ‘hmmm’ sound as part of the glacier broke off and came crackling down. It was like a distant thunderstorm, a sense of power. I try to get these things across (to my readers).
CNN: What do you think might surprise young readers to learn about glaciers in the book?
Sánchez: To keep it relevant to young readers, I keep bringing the focus back to the animals that depend on glaciers. In Washington state, the salmon depend on glacial melt, and grizzly bears are in turn dependent on salmon. There are ice worms that live on glaciers, they’re as tiny as an eyelash. And rosy finches depend on those ice worms for food. … I try to make the glaciers seem alive to make them more relatable, and along with it the message of why we need to save them.
CNN: For most people, the chance to walk on a real glacier will remain a pipe dream. What are to be awed by nature wherever we live?
Sánchez: Ideally, I wish every child could take a walk on a glacier. Sadly. it’s not that accessible for most people. In the United States, you need to go to a national park in the northwest or to Alaska. To places like North Cascades National Park or Glacier National Park in Montana. For many people, it’s beyond their means.
I usually write about places closer to (my) home (in New York), so even for me glaciers were a stretch. And while it’s wonderful to write about glaciers and rainforests and faraway places, I think that real love of the outdoors can come from your backyard, your local park, the squirrel at your local nature center. I’ve taught for 25 years in the outdoor realm, and so many kids have barely been off the sidewalks. Getting out into any form of nature is a real adventure for them.
CNN: What are some of the tools your book gives young readers to take action to save the glaciers?
Sánchez: I think most people of any age hear the words ‘climate change’ on the news and reach for the mute button. It’s like we can’t take any more bad news. I really think the way to inspire activism and this message that we conserve only what we love is to get excited about the beauty and fun of nature.
It starts with the small stuff, like working with your family to live more sustainably. Think about where you buy your food, where does your food come from? The book explains (the concept of your) carbon footprint. But realistically, we need bigger action. We need to harness the power of our governments to take action and get big corporations to take action.
I really stress the power of voting. Kids can’t vote, of course, but they can be huge advocates for getting people to vote — and for candidates who take strong action on climate change. Kids can find out how registration works in their state. How city ballots work in their state. It’s all online, and most kids are computer savvy. Do you know where your polling place is, do you know the hours?
Many kids are masters of social media and can help spread these messages. They really know how to use social media to spread the word in a way my generation doesn’t. There are, of course, limits to what a 10-year-old can do. But they have power, even if they don’t know they have it.
CNN: What’s the most important message you hope young readers will take away from your book?
Sánchez: The last section of the book is about how to help, how to become an activist. Kids need to get active. They can really make a difference. I think it’s easy for kids to feel like they have no power, or they have no say. That scientists know everything, that everything has been done. But it’s not true.
There are so many more mysteries. Nobody knows how ice worms survive on glaciers, for example, how they manage not to freeze. For kids, this world is their future. They really need to be active, and there are so many things they can do. One letter from a kid to a school board or to an editor can really start the ball rolling for change in their town.
I would love to hear from just one young person that reading the book made them take a definite action, made them do something. It doesn’t matter what, it’s that first baby step.