I continue my spotlight focus on authors whose novels are aimed toward a young adult and/or teen audience. These books might be interesting to teachers looking for titles that their students can read and discuss together; the storytelling about climate change is not entirely new but is settling deep into our collective consciousness as we become more aware, day by day, of the way our planet is changing.
This month I talk with Ned Tillman, whose debut novel, The Big Melt (South Branch Press), was published in August 2018. The Big Melt was inspired by a “1,000-year flood” that hit Howard County in 2016. Ned, part of the Howard County Environmental Sustainability Board, witnessed first-hand the resulting devastation. A scientist with two environmental stewardship non-fiction books under his belt, he decided to write a cautionary tale for middle and high school students. According to the Baltimore Sun, which ran an article on Ned’s novel:
Tim Singleton, a Columbia freelance writer who is co-chair of the board of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, thinks bringing the issue of climate change to younger readers via fiction was an inspired decision. “The young adult mind is not really jaded by patterns that overtake life,” he said. “They have a fresh sense of wonder that is very heartening.”
While some fiction about global warming is subtle and might not even mention climate change at all, other stories, like Ned’s, are more advocative. They chronicle events related to climate change and, in the case of The Big Melt, introduce characters who take action. This helps readers who are deeply concerned about problems but might feel powerless. Story characters become friends to us, in a sense. These stories are necessary for our world’s youth today, just as they always have been with other looming issues.
Sleepy Valley is a town probably similar in many ways to the one where you live. Things are fine on the surface, but no one is thinking about the future. Are you ready for what is about to happen to you and to towns all across the country and around the world?
Marley and Brianne, the main characters in our story, are not. Nor are their parents, their neighbors, or anyone in town. When they wake up the day after high school graduation they find their lives turned upside down as a series of climate catastrophes descend on their town. They struggle to find their voices and their purpose for living while attempting to save their family and friends, town, and civilization as we know it.
The Big Melt engages, informs, and challenges readers of all ages to consider a variety of perspectives on what is rapidly becoming the challenge of the century: Now that our climate is changing, what do we do? This work of contemporary fiction, with a touch of fantasy and hope, will inspire you to care a little more about what might occur in your town in the not-too-distant future.
Ned Tillman is the author of three books, a keynote speaker and the creative force behind the Saving the Places We Love campaign. He wants to do whatever he can to give others the tools to save the places they love. He has published two non-fiction books full of ideas and examples of what it takes to accomplish these goals, and a novel to inspire all of us to take action. He speaks to and facilitates groups coming together to save places important to them.
During his career, Ned has provided energy and environmental consulting services to governments and corporations across the U.S. and abroad. He has presented keynote addresses at national conventions, colleges, and for a range of businesses and non-profit organizations. He serves on local, regional, and national boards working to ensure the health and sustainability of our country. Proceeds from his books go toward watershed restoration, climate, and land preservation efforts.
What’s going on in the Big Melt?
On the day after graduation, a series of climate catastrophes strike the town of Sleepy Hollow. New graduates, Marley and Brianne, struggle to save their town and in the process discover their voices and purpose for living. They face melting asphalt roads, invasive kudzu vines and forest destroying beetles, wind and firestorms, lakes bubbling from decaying algae, and a host of migrating animals. Their biggest challenge is convincing the town fathers to take action. They fail, the town is abandoned, and they move on to more progressive towns in cooler parts of the country.
What are Marley and Brianne like?
Marley is an outsider, a skateboarder, and a maturing young man who cares for his town and his friends. Brianne is his best friend, a real energetic partner in crime/salvation, and his equal in trying to save the town. They become role models for young adult readers. There are five imperfect adults who become their mentors in the fight to save the town.
Have you gotten any feedback from younger people who have read the book? How do you think environmental fiction can truly inspire readers?
I had 100 teenagers read it during the writing phase, which was a huge help. I have had feedback from dozens of kids and adults since it was released this past fall. The general feedback was that they got really engaged in the storyline, learned a lot about how things work, and are much more motivated to do something about climate change. I wrote this book as a current story that could happen anywhere tomorrow – it is not a futuristic dystopian setting. It is also a very real life story. As a result, readers come away with a visceral feeling that things could get pretty bad if we don’t act now. I am also very careful to give them a sense of hope – if they act now.
It’s amazing that you were so involved in having your audience read the book during your writing phase. Did you have similar experiences being wowed by fiction while growing up, and what were those novels?
Yes, starting with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I also was motivated by Edward Abby’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – which still haunts me today. Carl Hiassin’s books taught me the power of fantasy and humor in getting a story across.
What is Saving the Places We Love?
My second book (my first was The Chesapeake Watershed) is a look at many of the iconic natural sites in this country that we all love. I wanted to help people get a real sense of the wonders of these areas by using a series of anecdotes of my experiences “touching nature” in each of these settings. I then explore how they were preserved and the threats they face today. This is a non-fiction call to arms to go outside and fall in love with nature and then do whatever you can to preserve it for future generations.
Do you have anything else to add?
I was interested to hear back from one teacher who used this book in class to help the students learn how to tell fact from fiction – an important challenge in the Internet age. I did hyperbolize a few anecdotes, which raises questions in the reader’s minds. So how do they test these questions out? Where do they go to get reliable answers? Who do they ask? Marley has this problem as well so he serves as a role model in this way as well.
Thank you, Ned! It’s interesting to see how many young adults and teens helped during the writing period and are loving the novel now. I wish you well.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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