Climate Change Fiction: How I wrote a “cli-fi” book before I realized it was a thing

I recently came across a term for a literary subgenre that was new to me, cli-fi. As in “climate change fiction.”

This is an expansive category of fiction that includes climate change themes. Within that loose genre, the stories can be utopian or dystopian, literary or satire. It’s a wide open, burgeoning field.

Jules Verne is credited with writing the first books in this genre — long before the term “sci-fi” was coined — with the novel 1883 novel, Paris in the 20th Century, where he imagined Paris hit by a sudden drop in temperature that lasts a number of years. In 1964, JG Ballard wrote The Burning World, a novel predicated on a man-made climate disaster.

Neither of these men realized they were writing cli-fi. And neither did I when I wrote Better Off Undead. But now I understand how my book falls into that category.

I began Better Off Undead with a vision of a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian Lazares, the ultimate misfit. And that idea sat in a drawer for a few years — it seemed a little trendy, frankly — until in 2014 I went to the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

 

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this experience affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

Why was Adrian a zombie? I needed an answer for that. At that March, it all connected for me. The book would be set in the not-so-distant future. And suddenly, it was obvious: the world was out-of-whack, like Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I was writing a world-gone-wrong story. Cli-fi, in other words.

In Better Off Undead, Adrian and his friends live in a future environment imperiled by climate change. Weird things are happening to their world, but in the story it’s mostly unremarked upon, the new normal.

Some examples:

  • Adrian’s father is a mercenary soldier working for Corporate, fighting in the “water wars” somewhere in Africa.
  • Dane warns Adrian not to run away to California because “it’s on fire.” Adrian replies, “Not all of it.”
  • References to “super storms” and “superflus” and dengue fever, melting ice caps and rising seas, killer wasps and strangled lakes.
  • A subplot about honeybees and colony collapse disorder, references to bats dying of white nose disease.
  • “EarthFirst gas masks” are advertised on television.
  • By the way, this is a COMEDY. Booklist gave it a starred review and described the book as “Hilarious!” Just so you don’t get the wrong idea!

Adrian reflects: “I was a reanimated corpse, alone in the world, but I also sensed that maybe I was part of something larger.

My mom!

In this context, the zombie concept began to make sense.

And on it goes. The world in Better Off Undead is immediately recognizable, but at the same time, slightly off. The problems of today persist: bees and bats dying off . . . the end of privacy . . . data-mining by faceless corporations . . . spy drones . . . evil billionaires . . . and hologram advertising beamed into the night sky.

And, yeah, one lone zombie — maybe more — wandering around, wondering what is to become of this planet.

Somehow it all ends with a note of hope.

Because we can’t give up on that.

One Question, Five Authors #3: “What influence have comic books had on your work?”

Welcome to the third installment of “One Question” — the world’s laziest interview series. Today the focus is on comic books, one of the great wellsprings of inspiration for so many talented writers and illustrators of children’s books.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Eric Velasquez, Bruce Coville, Matt McElligott, Charise Harper, and Alan Silberberg. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to journey through time and space to visit past editions.

 

Eric Velasquez

As you know comic books played a huge part in life. Comic books basically taught me how to read. I found an interest in the characters and stories that I could not find in the reading material in elementary school. I was also fortunate to have a very smart mother that would direct me to the dictionary if I did not understand a particular word in any of the comics, this would later prove to be a key factor in my development. Today,  I am so happy that schools are  embracing comic books as legitimate reading material for students. This makes a big difference in the lives of reluctant readers.

Now, in terms of my work, as a result of my love of comics I wanted to become a cartoonist. I went to the High School of Art and Design to study cartooning. However, in my senior year I was introduced to painting and the rest is history. Because I still love comics there are many aspects of comic book art in my work today, mostly my use of panels and dramatic angles.

 

Bruce Coville

I was 11, and already an avid reader of comics, when Stan Lee unleashed the first issue of The Fantastic Four and launched what became a revolution in comics. That comic, and the cascade of newly created characters that soon followed, provided a real time example of how an art form (though calling comics an “art form” at that time would have generated howls of derisive laughter) could be reinvented and re-invigorated.

By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a devoted Marvel geek. In fact, my first published words were in Marvel letter columns. And, oh, how I wanted to write for them (much to my mother’s alarm).

Oddly, despite my devotion to Marvel, the very first money I made for something I wrote was the princely sum of ten dollars for a story concept I sold to DC’s The House of Mystery. Small change, yes . . . but as a first sale it helped give me confidence that I could be a writer.

Eventually I found my place writing prose for kids. But there is no doubt that comic books were a significant part of what put me on the path!

 

Matthew McElligott

I can remember trading an action figure for my first stack of comics in second grade, then the excitement of bringing them home and spreading them out on the living room floor. They were a mix of titles, tattered and worn, and out of sequence. Some issues began in the middle of a larger story, and others ended with thrilling cliffhangers. The door was opened to a living, breathing world that was not quite fantasy, not quite reality, and I moved in and never really left.

Now, decades later, I understand that there are specific, formal reasons why that world was so enticing. Reading the works of Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud really blew my mind, and I began to appreciate the formal structures that allow comics to do things no other medium can. Here’s an example I love to show my class:

 

 

At first glance, this panel by Jack Kirby may not seem particularly noteworthy. In fact, it might seem kind of juvenile. But dig a little deeper and you’ll notice something really remarkable: this panel is showing us the past (the dialog), the present (WHAK), and the future (the recoil from the punch) all at the same time, and our brains don’t explode. How does that work?

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out, and it informs everything I do as an illustrator. Good thing I made that trade in second grade.

 

Charise Harper

Words and pictures together makes sense to my brain.  My father is French, and when I was eight years old, my French grandmother started to live with us for six months of the year.  My brother and I could understand French and speak a little, but this was a big change for us.  Our house was instantly one hundred percent French speaking only.  Not only that, but our parents wanted us to read and write in French too.  So what did they do?  They bought us French comic books — lots of them.  This was huge!  At that point, I personally owned maybe six books.  My family did not have a lot of extra money, and now suddenly, we had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comic books.  My brother and I struggled through the books, looking at the pictures, deciphering the words and understanding more and more on each subsequent read.  These comic books changed my life.  They gave me an understanding of French humor, enabled me to interact with my grandmother and imbued me with a love of comics.  Using words and pictures together is my literary comfort food — my happy place.

 

Alan Silberberg

Confession: I was an Archies comic book fan. When the whole Marvel vs DC argument comes up at polite dinner parties  (I know geeky people!) I shrink back into the world of redheads and jugheads. I think reading stories about (unrealistic) high school where bullies and blondes and friendships were the norm gave me an idealized vision of life — that I liked to skewer in my writing. When the underground comics scene became (sort of) mainstream I was drawn to Ralph Bakshi and R.Crumb and other far out cartoonists and their styles. Jules Feifer’s early work and later Lynda Barry’s personal comics gave me a sense that telling my own stories visually was acceptable. In the Publishers Weekly review of Meet the Latkes, my cartooning style is described as “if I drew the book hopped up on chocolate gelt.”  And to me . . . that says it all!

Why We Do It — Thank You, Rochester Children’s Book Festival!

I’d like to share a story with you — a story that gets deeper and more lovely as we go along — and it all comes back to how blessed I feel to play a small role in this incredible world of children’s literature. Authors, readers, teachers, librarians, parents, all of us joined in the same magical dance of literacy and empathy and kindness.

It can be a hard way to earn a living, full of soul-crushing rejections and ever-present financial worries, but it’s also obviously the best job ever.

I visited two K-3 schools in the Rochester area last week, Thursday and Friday, November 1st and 2nd. This tied into the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, which took place on Saturday the 3rd. This is a unique festival, with heart and soul, and I’m grateful to have been invited several times over the years.

Let me tell you about this girl I met. For some reason, maybe because I was her first “real, live” author, Lauren was smitten with me. We connected during my school visit, to the point where she returned home and urged her mother to please, please, please take her to see James Preller (again) at the RCBF. Her mother obliged, gladly.

Let’s pause now for some photos, combined from those two visits, including several which were sent to me by Lauren’s mother, Kara, who granted permission to post them here. She wrote:

You made quite the impression on Lauren. She read the whole way home and drew an amazing picture of one of the Jigsaw Jones books you signed for her.

We’ll get to the heart-melting part of this post in a moment, but first some quick snaps . . .

This guy greeted me in the lobby at one of the schools . . .


Due to time and space restrictions, I gave “big” presentations to grades 1 and 2 combined . . .

. . . and a small one for the kindergartners. Pro tip: While I’m typically energetic for large groups, I always sit for K-only groups. We keep it mellow & super cozy. . .

Then at Saturday’s book festival, Lauren showed up, beaming . . .

We chatted and took a snap together . . .

Who’s cuter? Do I win?

My pal!

The car ride home was quiet . . .

And she drew a picture for me that very night.

The next day, Lauren’s mother and I exchanged some messages.

She wrote:

As I’m sure you saw from our facebook page, Lauren’s younger brother, Owen, died, and it’s given her an astonishing level of empathy and awareness for others. We actually started an entire book donation program in his name at the hospital where he spent his entire life, and she is very involved in the process of selecting the books for the kids at the hospital. It’s our attempt in turning unimaginable heartbreak into something good.

And it’s true: I had gone over to Kara’s page when I received her friendship request, and learned about Owen, Lauren’s brother, an infant who passed not long ago. Kara writes openly and courageously about Owen, and loss — always with warmth and wisdom. This is one recent message I found on her page, which I find profound and beautiful:

If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention their child because you think you might make them sad by reminding them they died — you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you are reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and that is a great gift.

Remembering all of the beautiful gifts and appreciation for life that sweet Owen continues to give us, all the babies who left too soon, and the families they left behind.

 

 

As a parent of a two-time childhood cancer survivor, including five years of chemo, I can relate to Kara’s words. People don’t always know what to do. Whether to say something or, perhaps, not. In my experience, some kind of recognition is always best. And food is always welcome!

If you have something to give to Owen’s book donation program, that’s great. If not, that’s okay, too. Authors and illustrators get asked to do this kind of thing a lot. No matter how you respond, please give a thought to Owen, and remember Kara’s infinitely wise words.

Count your blessings every single day.

Kara credits Lauren with helping their family when they lost Owen. She also credits the kindness of friends, relatives, and perfect strangers. Here’s Kara’s email address if you wish to donate a book or two: Karaconners@gmail.com

Thanks for stopping by.

Oh, and — I see you, Lauren! Terrific drawing. Keep reading!

GREAT NEWS: Terrific Review for “Everybody Needs a Buddy.”

“The book abounds with examples of kindness,
empathy,
friends who listen to one another,
and ways to strike up a friendship
and to make a difference
at your school.”

— School Library Connection

 

How’s that for a review quote?

I’m grateful for the kind words and sympathetic reading by Phyllis Amerikaner. That one sentence really captures what we are trying to do with this series, which I see as a direct response to today’s political climate.

I’ve pretty much given up on the adults.

My hope is with these kids.

Anyway, if you don’t know, “The Big Idea Gang” features a group of students who use their powers of persuasion to make a positive difference in their school community. By working together, they achieve their modest goals: a new school mascot, a buddy bench for the playground, a more “bee-friendly” garden.

Three titles are finished and coming soon: Worst Mascot Ever and Everybody Needs a Buddy (January), and Bee the Change (May). Grades 1-4.  

Thanks in advance, teachers, for giving these books a chance. We need to inspire and support these young kids, their voices and their ideas.

Full review below.

Preller, James

The Big Idea Gang: Everybody Needs a Buddy

Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. 2019. 96pp. $15.99 hc. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 9781328857194. Grades 1-4

This second book in the Big Idea Gang series opens with a lunchtime debate about the best part of the school day. For friendly, easy-going Deon, it’s recess. No contest. Then at recess that day, Deon notices an unfamiliar boy looking miserable and wants to help him. When the Big Idea Gang meets the next day to discuss news of a surplus of cash in the PTA treasury, Deon suggests a buddy bench, where kids can go when they need a friend. The problem is that the PTA has announced its plan to use the money to buy books for the library. The resolution of the story—Deon’s successful pitch to get not one, but two buddy benches—leaves it unclear if there was room in the PTA budget for books, too. However, the book abounds with examples of kindness, empathy, friends who listen to one another, and ways to strike up a friendship and to make a difference at your school. Other positive plot elements include lessons on how rumors can spread, and, best of all, a librarian explaining her rationale for weeding outdated books. Illustrations break up the simple text of this beginning chapter book, and fans of Preller’s Jigsaw Jones mysteries will welcome the arrival of this new, appealing series. Phyllis Amerikaner, Head Librarian (Retired), Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California

Recommended

“Imagine Meeting You Here!”

Look who I bumped into at a school visit today in Rochester!