Onjali Q. Raúf and Tanya Steele celebrate Earth Day with their favourite books about our incredible planet
Published on: 21 April 2021 Author: Onjali Q. Raúf
Every year, on Earth Day, we are reminded of the importance and fragility of nature and what we can all do to better protect and conserve the wildlife on our planet. Writer in Residence Onjali Q. Raúf spoke to the World Wild Fund for Nature CEO, Tanya Steele, about what we can do to make a difference - and shared some of their favourite books about the environment.
“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.”
― Sir David Attenborough, Natural Historian & Broadcaster
Falling in love with the natural world
This Earth Day ― a day marked on 22nd April each year ― leaders from around the world will be convening to discuss once again, one of the most urgent matters of our lifetimes: the health of our natural world, and how to stem and reverse the damages humankind has inflicted upon it.
It’s a day that makes me want to ask everyone: can you remember the first time you fell head over heels in love with the natural world? Perhaps it was on a trip somewhere which lit up all your senses? Or through the love of an animal? Or a television programme? Or maybe it was through the pages of a book?
For me, it was all of the above, introduced at different stages of my inner city child’s life. I think the very first moment of my realising that the world wasn’t all made up of concrete slabs, tower blocks and cars, was on my first ever trip to the Welsh countryside, where my mum and her friends had rented a cottage a few minutes’ walk from the sea. I must have been about six or seven, but I can still remember being overwhelmed by the sight of endless valleys of heather, and feeling the salty sea breeze hit my face as my step-in grandmother, Susy, chased me down the largest expanse of sand I had ever seen.
Shortly after, a trip to Bangladesh to visit my great-grandfather saw me walking through mango groves and freshly sprouting banana trees with him. The memory of being surrounded by butterflies and cows as cousins jumped (horrifically unafraid!) into lakes awash with giant fish, will forever remain the birthing story behind my love for this stunning planet of ours.
And in conjunction with those delicious experiences, came books!
The stories that take root
From The Little Grey Rabbit series (I still find Wise Owl's Story and his loss of a home distressing) and the wisdoms of Winnie-the-Pooh, to my local librarian opening up my world with such stories as Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden, animals and their habitats and worlds, all took root in my imaginings and seeped out into my own made-up stories. All aided by my primary teacher who introduced my friends and me to our first class hamster (a creature I promptly fell in love with), and the fixture of Sir David Attenborough’s sage voice and eyes in our global travels via the TV set.
By the time I was 13, I was absolutely desperate to adopt an animal in danger, following an advert I had seen on the TV by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF). So I decided to do something a little drastic, as pocket money wasn’t a reality in my South Asian world. Cue: my first ever fundraising event, and the launch of what I’m pretty sure was The Worst Bake Sale in All History! But thankfully, biscuits of seriously questionable colours, didn’t seem to matter to my teachers and friends, and I became the proud sponsor of my first ever endangered animal. Ever since, WWF have continued to play a huge part in my eco-actions, as small as they may seem at times.
Which is why I am more giddy with delight than ever, that Tanya Steele ― World Wild Fund for Nature UK's first ever female CEO and phenomenal environmental and humanitarian activist ― has agreed to share the moments and books which inspired her activisms. All to help mark this year’s crucial Earth Day for everyone at BookTrust. (See the video above and her fantastic book recommendations below.)
Books for inspiration and hope
In an age where 80% of our children are thought to be experiencing some form of eco-anxiety, it is crucial we gift our little ones (and ourselves) access to books which forge not only an understanding of our unique planet, but act as a comfort and a hope to us too. A hope that we can make a difference in the future of this planet’s wellbeing. Because as Tanya highlights in our discussion, every single seemingly tiny step we take to help our world does make a difference. Whether it’s upping our recycling, joining forces with others, or simply appreciating what we have.
It is no coincidence that the theme for this year’s Earth Day is ‘Restore Our Earth’. As scientists and activists are working endlessly to highlight, we have less than a decade to reduce the impacts we make on our planet and stabilise temperatures. That work cannot wait, and can only be achieved if we work together as one species, belonging to one Earth.
Below are Tanya’s top five recommended reads, followed by my own. Whether or not you have read them already, I truly hope they inspire you to help us save our earth, in whatever beautiful way you can.
For more ways in which to inspire young people to take positive action, see the WWF-UK Inspire Page HERE.
P.S. Don’t forget: children can nominate a local eco-warrior for our Local Heroes Competition!
Tanya and Onjali's top books for Earth Day
Tanya: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Onjali: Our Little Inventor by Sher Rill Ng
Tanya on The Very Hungry Caterpillar: "The all-time classic picture book, in which a very hungry little creature munches its way right into every reader’s heart. The depiction of life - and a simple little creature’s life, is eternally adorable."
Onjali on Our Little Inventor: "Want to meet the cutest, most determined eco-inventor on the planet? Look no further! Nell is ready and raring to go, and has invented something quite wonderful to help save her countryside. The only problem is, will anyone ever listen to her? An utterly gorgeous, unforgettable read."
Tanya: Tidy by Emily Gravett
Onjali: Clean Up! by Nathon Bryon & Illustrated by Dapo Adeola
Tanya on Tidy: "What happens when you become too tidy? Tanya loves badgers, and Pete the badger is a fascinating creature, wanting to make everything be neat and tidy at all times. But then he starts to go a little too far, unbalancing the forest in which he lives. A gorgeous tale, highlighting the importance of balance and care for all."
Onjali on Clean Up!: "Rocket is back and she is on a mission! Travelling out to her grandparents’ beautiful island, she is aghast at the pollution she encounters. So being Rocket, she does the only thing she can: mobilise! A brilliant follow on in the adventures of Rocket - of which I doubt this planet will ever have enough."
Tanya: The Lorax by Dr Seuss
Onjali: The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday
Tanya on The Lorax: "Who can’t help but love the original eco warrior who speaks for the trees? Fifty years since its creation, The Lorax’s message feels more important than ever, and a is a perfect tool to raise awareness of the destruction of the environment. A tool which comes fully formed in Dr. Seuss’ trademark and beloved use of narrative rhyme."
Onjali on The Last Wild trilogy: "OK. So I kind of cheated (sorry Tanya)! But I couldn’t help it. The Last Wild series, featuring the utterly unique, arrow-to-the-heart character of Kester, is a must-read for anyone dreaming of linking their world with the kingdom of animals. And not only is Kester the possessor of an extraordinary skill, but he begins his adventures living in a state of quarantine, following a disease which may now be deadly to humans too (sound familiar?). A page-turner of the first order. Hence all three…"
Tanya: Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold
Onjali: Earth Heroes by Lily Dyu
Tanya on Where The World Turns Wild: "For older readers, this ecological adventure set in a time where a deadly man-made disease has led to the banishing of nature and the trapping of life behind city walls, will strike close to home. Juniper Greene and her little brother Bear dream of the wild - but will their unique resistance to the disease, ever let them be free? A heart-stopping page-turner, which feels especially crucial in today’s pandemic-inflicted world."
Onjali on Earth Heroes: "If you ever need proof that there are amazing individuals in the world, fighting climate change in their own unique ways and across all industries, then this is book for you. With twenty inspirational stories celebrating the pioneering works of s/heroes of today such as Yin Yuzhen, Isatou Ceesay, Bittu Saghal, Rok Rozman, and of course, Greta Thunberg and our own Sir David Attenborough, trust me when I say it’s a must for every shelf and library ever made."
Onjali and Tanya: No-one is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
Tanya: "Whilst Greta is by no means the only climate activist in the world, she remains one of the most prominent and universally acknowledged. These straight-forward, no-nonsense speeches, penned by Greta herself, are short enough to dip into, and yet powerful enough to make you want to get up and take action right away."
Onjali: "Snap! Because every speech penned by this extraordinary young girl (on whose shoulders the entire world has placed so, so much upon), will resonate with every reader, no matter their age. And because that title is a truth I see being made a reality, every single day. Delve. Heed. Share. With everyone. One of my favourites to gift to anyone I can."
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Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books. Our current Writer in Residence is Michelle Robinson.