Books as a Force for Change: Adventures in Learning with Author Christy Mihaly
“And I think that making kids feel empowered and helping them channel the energy that they have is what we want to do. Because kids do care. Kids have an immediate, visceral, emotional reaction when they see dirty water and when they see suffering animals. They want to help. And that's where I want to go. It's like, here's the information you need, and here's how we can be active in making things better.”
— Author Christy Mihaly (@19:20 Adventures in Learning podcast)
Author Christy Mihaly is a nature lover, a former lawyer, and a poet. She writes for kids because she believes that our best hope for the future is raising young people who love to read and giving them the knowledge and skills to lead. Christy has written more than 30 children's nonfiction titles on topics from hayfields to free speech to food. Her fall 2021 picture book with Barefoot Books Water. A Deep Dive of Discovery, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa was awarded a Kirkus Star and a gold in the Nautilus Book Awards. I’m a huge fan of Christy’s work, particularly the nonfiction she writes that helps educate kids about the environment and about the importance of making their voices heard. I’m excited to share excerpts from our conversation and links to her work in the blog post below. To listen to the entire conversation, please listen, subscribe, and leave your comments.
Connecting Past and Present —
From Environmental Lawyer to Children’s Book Author
Both being a lawyer and being familiar with the whole legal system and the way the laws are supposed to work and the power of using laws well to achieve policy goals, all those things are topics that kids don't think about a lot. But I realized I wanted kids to start thinking about those things. Things like, we have a right to freedom of speech. We have a right to criticize our government leaders. What does that mean in our society and in our government? And so those are some of the topics that I have woven together with the environment, outdoors, nature, topics that I also have always wanted to write about. (4:07) Christy Mihaly
Christy’s adventures in learning took her from studying environmental science and policy studies in college to becoming an environmental lawyer. For 20 years she worked as an environmental lawyer working with environmental groups and local governments that wanted to preserve their resources. She eventually moved to Vermont and spent another five years working in the state Attorney General’s Office. In 2012, she made a huge career transition. “ I was homeschooling my daughter for a year and decided, this is my chance. I'm going to start doing this writing for kids thing that I'd been thinking about. And so I got into it seriously starting in 2012, and I've been doing it since,” she says.
Taking on Big Issues and Making Them Accessible and Fun for Young Readers:
In recent years, Christy has begun writing for kids about our legal system. I asked her to share a little about the evolution of Free for You and Me and The Supreme Court and Us.
“The evolution of Free for You and Me, which is about the First Amendment, it started in 2016 or so when I was starting to hear people in the government say things about our system that just weren't true. There were statements that anybody that burns the flag should go to jail and their citizenship could be taken away, and this is just not true. It's just not what our laws say. And so I talked with my literary agent, and I said, I really want to do something about the Constitution. And she laughed and she said, oh, what we need is a board book, and we're going to send it to all the members of Congress. And that was kind of a joke, but it evolved into a picture book that focuses on the First Amendment.” [05:17]
Christy focused on making the First Amendment “kid friendly” by writing poems about each of the five freedoms enshrined into the Constitution. She also added a narrative about a group of elementary school children who were addressing a local concern using their First Amendment rights. The book was illustrated by Manu Montoya and published by Albert Whitman in 2020. Described by Kirkus as a "timely" and "valuable" picture book, Free for You and Me provides a simple explanation of the rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, presented with poems, historical examples, and vignettes showing kids exercising their rights. Lively illustrations and helpful back matter make this a must-have for curious kids and adults. There’s also a kid review and a teaching guide for the book available on Christy’s webpage.
Because of the success of Free for You and Me, Albert Whitman came back to Christy and asked if she would like to do a book about the Supreme Court, which eventually developed into The Supreme Court and Us, illustrated by Neely Daggett and published in 2022. Calling it a "child-friendly legal primer," Kirkus says this "creative and informative" book "will be a great addition to home and school libraries."
“This was before the big shift in the Supreme Court, but I again struggled with how to introduce young kids to the Supreme Court in a way that was engaging and fun,” Christy says. “But then I realized that court cases are basically little stories. And so I picked a bunch of little stories that were fun and involved children, and it again became sort of it's almost a cartoon format. It's a little bit of a picture book, graphic novel kind of format, and again, really fun the way it turned out, and a good way to start some of those difficult conversations with children about the role of the Supreme Court in our country.” (@7:30)
[08:08] Dr. Diane: What a fun way to engage them with the civic process and to help them understand the Constitution and to understand the way that our country runs. That is a great way to use all of your various skills and bring them forward. So the book I fell in love with initially was Water. A Deep Dive of Discovery. I've done a lot of STEM education with kids talking about our local watershed and helping them to sort of understand your watershed address — what you do here affects the people downstream and what the people upstream from you do affects you, that we're all interconnected. What led you to water as a concept?
[08:47] Christy: Yeah, water is connection, isn't it, Diane? And that was what I really came to in working on this book.
Barefoot Books, who published Water. A Deep Dive of Discovery, approached Christy to do the writing for a book about water in March of 2020. If you are unfamiliar with Barefoot Books, they publish gorgeous atlases (think space, the earth, various holidays).
“And they were the ones that said, oh, there's all these kids books about the ocean and the animals that live in the water and the water cycle, but where's the water atlas? And so that was the seed of the project.”
Christy says Water. A Deep Dive of Discovery was a fascinating pandemic project as she worked on it with an editor in England and an illustrator in Spain, Mariona Cabassa and they all worked on the book simultaneously by sharing files over the course of a year. Kirkus Reviews gave Water a star and called it "Oceanic in scope--but clear and refreshing!"
[10:57] Christy: Yes, the central message was how wonderful, how filled with wonder water is. We wanted to be letting kids know about the environmental challenges that we face and how they affect water, including climate change and a whole bunch of other things. Water pollution, water shortages, lots of things are all interrelated, but we didn't want to make it too depressing and upsetting for children. So what I wanted to do was just focus on how amazing and really magical water is and how important it is and let the kids learning this and appreciating this come to understand that water is something that we really do want to protect and steward. So, yeah, we didn't hide any of the problems, but we didn't want to lead with the problems. We wanted to lead with the beautiful stuff about how water works and how important it is to life and to connections and all those things.
How Eating Insects Might Help Combat Climate Change
(And other ideas for you to digest)
[14:02] Dr. Diane: So you've also written for older children. You've got a book, Diet for a Changing Planet: Food for Thought, which I'm debating whether my husband is getting for Christmas, because it does talk about eating crickets and he would do it. But can you tell us a little bit more about what led to that?
At [14:18] Christy describes the process that led to the creation of Diet for a Changing Planet: Food for Thought. She had been thinking about writing a book for children about eating insects, the practice of entomophagy, because she met a local activist in Vermont who was hosting these insect based dinners and who was demonstrating that eating insects was a really good way to be kind to the planet because it uses so many fewer resources to raise insects than it does to raise other kinds of protein. “For some reason, I couldn't find a publisher that wanted to take on a picture book for children about eating insects,” she quips. “They seemed to think there might be some problems with that.”
That’s when she discovered that a writing partner from her critique group, Sue Heavenrich, had been independently thinking about a book about entomophagy herself. So the two decided to collaborate on a proposal for a nonfiction middle grade book. They eventually found a publisher, 21st Century Children's Books, who wanted to do it for a YA (young adult) audience, which allowed them to expand the idea for a more mature audience.
“So it wasn't only about insects. It was about all the ways that our diet affects the climate and all the ways that we can, you know, have a smaller carbon footprint through our diet,” Christy notes. “So we looked at weeds, invasive plants especially, and invasive animals. It was intended to be a fun way to get high school kids into thinking about activism and how we can make a difference, we can make things better even with something as fundamental as what we eat. So there's various invasive animals like wild boars and lionfish that cause tremendous environmental damage. And so we had little sketches of many of these animals and suggestions for ways you could responsibly add them to your diet. The book also has recipes, which is kind of fun, and again, it gets that hands on element of really digging in and being active.” Christy Mihaly (@15:55)
Action Steps for Reducing Carbon Footprints
Climate change continues to play an important role for Christy in the work she creates for a. younger audience. I asked if she had some suggestions for folks who might be listening or reading about ways they could start reducing their carbon footprint or making a difference? Some steps they could take?
For kids, Christy suggested starting with ways to reduce single use plastic consumption. “Kids have a little less leeway in terms of what they can do, but they can start being conscious of the carbon that we use and how we use it,” she says. In the book, they talk about how plastic uses a lot of water and energy to manufacture it. “So we suggest that a small thing like using a reusable water container instead of a single use plastic one can make a difference, and it can make more and more difference the more people do it.” (17:20)
Another area Christy says kids (and their adults) can make a difference is through diet. “There's more and more discussion out there about how if we do eat less of certain meats or less and more of meats that are raised responsibly or more just plant based food, it can reduce our carbon footprint,” she says. “It can help to get back to the balance that we need. And children can raise their voices, they can write letters, they can demand action. And adults are starting to listen because this generation coming up, they're the ones that are going to be stuck with this mess. And I think that making kids feel empowered and helping them channel the energy that they have is what we want to do. Because kids do care. Kids have an immediate, visceral, emotional reaction when they see dirty water and when they see suffering animals. They want to help. And that's where I want to go. It's like, here's the information you need, and here's how we can be active in making things better.”
And then as adults, it's our responsibility to support and encourage them, but also to take steps within our own lives to model and make those changes as well...And that's the best of STEM learning. STEM and STEAM learning is when you can really link the imagination and the emotion to the critical thinking and the problem solving. You're preparing kids to live in the 21st century and to hopefully make some of the critical changes we need. --Dr. Diane [22:55]
Hints About Christy’s Next Big Project (Check out The Hidden Life of Trees)
[24:34] Dr. Diane: So what are you currently working on? Are you able to share?
[24:40] Christy: Currently, no. I have some things that I am really struggling with and sometimes writing is just like that. Sometimes it is a complete struggle and I'm having to dive into the research and start back again at the beginning because it's not working. I do have some books in the pipeline that also I can't announce yet, but I will say that I am working on a variety of picture books on a variety of topics that relate to nature and the earth. Also farming, which is a topic that I keep coming back to from different angles. And so some times are more of a struggle than others. But I have learned to accept that as part of the process, and hopefully I can be announcing and sharing some new projects before too much longer.
[25:49] Dr. Diane: So when you're diving in to do your work, what would a day in the life of a writer look like? And I know that there is no typical day, right?
[25:58] Christy: And there is no typical day, but if I'm at the research portion of a project, I often will sit and read books for hours at a time. And the way I do it is I'm at the same time going online to check on things and going back and forth with, okay, here's what it says in this book, but what else does this scientist do, and what is the latest on this, back and forth between the printed page and online? I also try to identify experts that I can talk to. So finding the professor who might want to talk to me about the topic, and I might send some emails out to people asking if they'd be willing to share their wisdom. And I also am planning for this current project, a couple of museum visits, because that can be a way to both get that hands on, oh, here's what things feel like and look like. And also, again, find some experts who are deeply passionate about the topics and often willing to help. I do find that experts are always, almost always happy to share their knowledge. And if you tell someone you're writing a book for kids, they often are very enthusiastic about helping to do that.
A Possible Hint to Christy's Next Project?
[27:34] Dr. Diane: That's exciting. So are there any books that you're currently reading that are sort of sparking your imagination right now?
[27:42] Christy: Oh, my gosh. I'm reading The Hidden Life of Trees.
[27:47] Dr. Diane: That's a great book.
[27:49] Christy: Yeah, I love that book so much, and I have just can't wait to read Finding the Mother Tree, which is…
[27:58] Dr. Diane: I'm about halfway through Finding the Mother Tree.
[28:00] Christy: It's good. There you go. So that's a hint about what I might be working on next.
[28:14] Dr. Diane: Isn’t that cool!
[28:16] Christy: But these scientists are advancing our understanding of plants in a way that it just sort of wasn't conceivable when I was learning biology.
[28:26] Dr. Diane: And the relationship between fungus and the trees and how they're all interconnected and that whole network, it makes you want to preserve the forests even more because those old growth trees are so vital to our environment.
[28:38] Christy: Exactly. Again, an example of how as we understand these systems more deeply, we care more about them and we understand their importance.
The Importance of Building Connections
I thought about our exchange regarding understanding systems more deeply in order to care about them and understand their importance as I recently visited the national parks, monuments, and forests of northern Arizona. It struck me, as I watched visitors interacting with the parks and hiking the trails and experiencing nature that you have to love something in order to care about its importance and want to protect it. And the best way to promote that love of something is to provide ways for people to responsibly experience and develop empathy for it, either through first-hand travel, virtual field trips, or books, such as the ones that Christy and other non-fiction authors write and illustrate and dynamic teachers, librarians, and families share. It’s all about building real and tangible connections.
What Brings You Joy?
When I posed the question, what currently brings you joy, we started by discussing the joy experienced at author visits and library programs. Libraries across the nation used the Oceans of Possibilities theme this past summer and Christy was fortunate enough to get to go and speak and interact with kids as they played with water, conducted science and STEM/STEAM investigations of water, and shared their joy about water.
“Water brings me joy,” Christy says. “One of the things that was so fun, when I would go and visit these libraries, we would chat a little bit with the kids, and I would say, when you think of water, what do you think of? And lots of, oh, we drink it, blah, blah, blah, blah. But before long, someone would say, it's fun. We play in water. Right. So walking by water, swimming in water, I mean, we are at the end of the summer, but paddling in water, standing and looking at a great blue heron, listening to the loons, all those things around water. Water is a joyful thing.” [28:55]
We also discovered that we both share joy in our aging dogs.
[30:15] Christy: I’m getting a lot of joy right now from my old dog. I have a dog who is almost 16 years old. She's been with us her whole life, and she is hanging in there. And every single day in the morning, I look at her and I'm like, are you still with us? Right? And she's up for it. Her legs don't work, her ears don't work, her eyes don't work. But she is filled with, like, the joy of being here. And I take her on these walks and oh, my God. When she first slowed down so much, I was frustrated because I like to go on quick walks, fast walks. She walks very slowly now, and she sniffs every blade of grass, as far as I'm aware. But I am learning from her. I am learning to slow down and be in the moment and observe as she does, though I don't smell as well, you know, what is out there, what is in the world. And I just feel like every day with her is a gift, because you get to the end of a life like this and, you know, we have limited time, and yet she is still herself. I tell people she has distilled down to her essence. I have the essence of her. And I'm just feeling like, such appreciation that I have this old dog. So she brings me joy.
[31:19] Dr. Diane: Oh, my goodness, Christy, I don't know if you know this, but I needed to hear that today. Behind me is my old dog, Lucky, who is sort of at the same point. She turns 14 in February. And I know that we're getting down to the end, but she's still so filled with joy and she's filled with personality, and she just brings joy because she's reminded me, just like you said, slow down, appreciate what's around you.
[31:46] Christy: Yes, the wisdom of the animals. Exactly.
What Brings You Hope?
Hope. I find hope comes from the kids. Again, talking with kids about these issues and just seeing them and seeing their emotional reactions to nature, to the world, to beauty and their instinct to make things better and to help the world. I don't think that there's anything else that gives me such great hope as watching, you know, being with the kids. The kids give me hope. -- Christy Mihaly [31:55]
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