Moms Clean Air Force blogger, Katy Farber has been an environmental health activist, public speaker, instructor of graduate level courses in service learning, and creator of the popular Non-Toxic Kids blog. Her background as a parent and sixth grade teacher came in handy as she crafted her first middle school novel. Katy recently chatted with us about her new book, The Order of the Trees:
Children’s literature is not necessarily an easy genre to break into. Which of your roles — parent, teacher or activist – gave you the clearest inspiration to write The Order of the Trees?
All of them! I’ve been writing about nature since I was a child, and being a teacher of middle grade students for over 15 years has given me a good sense of what this age group is like. I started my career as an environmental educator, and that work informed my passion for experiential education in my classroom teaching experience. The inspiration for the story came from many hours spent in the Vermont woods. Hiking or running is where I do my best thinking. The idea fell out of the sky — maybe from the trees themselves: What if a baby emerged somehow from an old growth tree? What would her story be in sixth grade?
How did you know when you found the right formula for the story?
Once I knew that Cedar (the main character) was magically connected to the forest, and that her one and only friend would discover the secret, I knew I had to see what might happen. The characters develop into strong, passionate, and unstoppable people (just like most middle grade kids are!).
Many stories solve a problem at the end…everyone celebrates, and the storyline concludes there. What more do you want to see from the influence of this story in young people’s lives?
I want kids to see themselves in Cedar and Phillip. Everyone has times when he or she is alone or bullied. I want kids to know they can make it through difficult times by being true to themselves and supporting each other. I hope that by showing kids standing up for what they think is right and believing in each other, is inspiring and motivating.
I also want middle grade students to see how much nature matters and how we are all connected to its fate. There is magic and wonder in our natural places and too many kids are disconnected from it.
Moms Clean Air Force educates about the connection between our environment and our children’s health. Who do you think understands this message best in your story: the kids or the adults? Is that message reflective of our society?
The kids know the most in this story. They know the truth about Cedar’s connection to the forest — even when it doesn’t make logical sense to adult minds. I think children in general are more open to elements of magic, wonder, and joy. I think that Phillip and Cedar show the whole community the value of the forest that they had taken for granted.
Which authors have been most influential to you, as you’ve explored environmental messaging through literature?
As I was writing this book, I was reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. While this is not environmental writing per se, the author writes about the sky in a beautifully descriptive way; like a character, a witness to everything that happens in the book. This was inspiring to me. I looked back through the book and added details to almost every scene about the sky. It became a tool for metaphorical storytelling and foreshadowing through descriptions of the sky.
I am a big fan of Carl Hiaasen’s books, Hoot, Flush, Scat and others. His books are endlessly funny and feature powerful and interesting environmental themes. After I read several of his books, I could see how writers tie in non-fiction elements to narratives to create work that was engaging, humorous and inspiring in terms of connecting with nature and advocating for its preservation.
As a teacher, what can you say about environmental science education in school these days?
It’s not enough. Teachers are under constant pressure to teach literacy and math — the subjects tested on state assessments. Science often gets short shrift in curriculum decisions, but it is the very subject many students find most engaging, especially for kids who might not be successful or motivated in traditional academic classes. Science and environmental education are engaging and hands-on. They activate all types of learners. Public schools face budget cuts, tight schedules, and increasing pressure for performance on standardized tests, so environmental and place-based education doesn’t happen as much as it should. The good thing is many teachers, parents and volunteers know the value in environmental education and work very hard to make it happen in their schools and communities regularly.
Aside from the environmental message, you also include an empowerment theme for both girls and boys. Why was that important?
Early adolescents don’t have just one story. There are a million ways to be brave, unique, powerful and part of a community. Both Cedar and Phillip do more than they ever thought they were capable of. They support each other even when facing difficult odds. I hope readers see resilience, hope, connection and themselves in these characters — so they can navigate their own challenges successfully.
Anything else you’d like to share about your main character, Cedar?
She is of the trees, but really, she is all of us. We all are connected to the natural places that surround us. They reduce our anxiety, they inspire us, they clean our air. As Cedar knows, we need them for a healthy life. I will leave it at that!
Thank you Katy, for sharing your insights about your new book, The Order of the Trees, published by Green Writers Press.