REPRESENTATION Earth Day, 22 April

 Earth Day is celebrated annually on 22nd April. Representation Features Editor Eva Wong Nava takes a look at what this celebration is through children’s books. But first, a little bit of history…


Earth Day was envisioned in the United States in 1970 when 20 million Americans were mobilised “to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development which had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts” (source).


The 1970s was a decade of awakening and change for many things — and was when the wake-up call to protect our planet arose from concerns such as crude oil spills; pollution from lead-carbon car fuels, factories and power plants; the spillage of raw sewage into rivers and seas; the over-usage of pesticides and the destruction of wildlife.


In America, Earth Day, a student-led demonstration that took place initially at universities spilled over to the political arena leading, at the end of the decade, to the creation of several governmental agencies and policies, like the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act, which was eventually followed by the Clean Water Act.


But it was only in 1990 that Earth Day went global with 200 million people in 141 countries taking part in dialogues and actions to protect our planet. “Earth Day 1990 gave a huge boost to recycling efforts worldwide and helped pave the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro” (source).  


For this issue of Words & Pictures, let’s take a look at three children’s books that help our young readers learn about our wonderful planet and to commemorate Earth Day.

Tree of Wonder: The Many Marvellous Lives of a Rainforest Tree by Kate Messner, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani (Chronicle Books, 2015 hardback, 2020 paperback) is a great book to start with. Let’s begin by counting, starting from “one Almendro tree” which “grows, stretching its branches towards the sun”. A fun fact at the bottom of page 3 tells us that “[a] single Almendro tree can produce more than a million flowers when it blooms”.


Messner’s non-fiction picture book not only tells us about the different wildlife and creatures in the rainforest of Latin America, it is also a maths book. Children learn about doubling up: 1, 2, 4, 8, up to 1,024 when the book ends with information about leaf-cutter ants.


This is a marvellous book filled with Mulazzani’s gorgeous illustrations, fun facts and a back matter of activities that will keep little ones growing in fascination with the natural world.


If I Were the World, by Mark Sperring, illustrated by Natelle Quek (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2023) is an absolutely delightful picture book with a call to action: “Let’s look after our planet together”.


The book asks the child reader to wear the shoes of Mother Earth in the refrain, “If I were the world”. It is a heartfelt book, beseeching us to “take action. We must do all that we can!”.


There is no more crucial a time than now to “clean up the oceans, recycle our waste…” as news of raw sewage is consistently being spilled into Britain’s rivers and seas. (source)


Earth’s plea “help me, please!” is rendered in Quek’s eye-catching signature style with lively and diverse characters.


In 2015, a Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, aged 15, started to protest for more action against climate change, and this led to an industry-wide interest, particularly in the Anglo-American publishing world, in environmental-issues books for children, which has all but saturated. I’ve been told that such books are a hard-sell now.


The children’s books that I’ve seen and read about climate change, saving our planet, and the natural world are all about the wildlife and forests in Europe or the rainforest of South America. What about the wildlife and the natural world in other parts of the world?


My childhood was spent in Southeast Asia, a region of eleven countries, where there is a huge range of biodiversity, where monsoon rains fall on rainforests full of toucans, hornbills, songbirds, monkeys, fire ants and all sorts of crawlies and critters. Where orangutans make nests in trees for beds. Where a nocturnal creature, a type of deer known as the Larger Malay mouse-deer, rummage the forest floor for food. To me, this solitary creature, the size of a small cat, is the sang kancil and my story world was inhabited by this clever little mouse-deer and its antics.


Cover design property of Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (source)

In my veritable search in Waterstones and independent bookstores in the UK, I have found none about the sang kancil or of any other animals that are familiar to me and the many people of East and Southeast Asian ancestry and heritage in Britain. Well, until Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear by Trang Nguyen, illustrated by Jeet Zdung (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2021) that is. This graphic novel, if you’ve been following the Yoto Carnegies, was shortlisted for the Yoto Carnegie medal for Illustration, 2023.


For a rare moment in the UK, children are now able to read about the Sun Bear. This cute bear is the smallest of bears, small enough that you can carry it like a baby, and it has jet-black fur, with a sunny orange patch on its chest. This bear was made for climbing and in its natural habitat you’ll often see it clinging to banana trees and other types of small trees.

Saving Sorya is “based on a true adventure”, the adventure of Vietnamese wildlife conservationist, Trang, captured in beautiful and realistic images by Jeet in hand drawn watercolours. The book follows Chang, a little girl with a dream to protect and conserve the wildlife of her beloved country, Vietnam.


This book brought tears, not just from the detailed illustrations by Jeet, who is self-taught, but by the migratory journey this book has taken to cross the South China Sea to the shores of England.


It gives me hope that more children’s books about the rainforests and wildlife of Southeast Asia will start to be championed by agents and publishers in Anglo-European publishing, because we are one world.

*Header image: ©Shannon Ell

Eva Wong Nava writes for children. She is working on several stories at the moment, and one of them happens to be about a lesser-known songbird from Southeast Asia. She hopes that the voice of this songbird will not be silenced into extinction by poachers in Southeast Asia and publishers in the United Kingdom and United States. You can find Eva on Twitter and Instagram: @evawongnava. Contact: W&


Shannon Ell is a non-binary illustrator, animator and designer based in Edinburgh.
Instagram: @shannon.illustrates

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