Happy (Belated) Earth Day


Happy Earth Day is a picture book I created after Earth Day 2022. While the work speaks for itself, I felt it would be helpful and fun for readers to learn about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of this little book. Accordingly, I want to walk through the ‘why’ of the book first—the feelings and reading that made me want to write a picture book about Earth Day. After that, I will go through some of the steps and turns I use to create art out of those feelings. Finally, I will close with a stray thought or two about how scholars can use images words together in ways that are difficult in traditional academic publishing.

The Why: Earth Day as a Love Festival

For me, Earth Day usually passes without much thought. After burning out of activism of any kind several years ago, I’ve been secluded from social movements. Moreover, the values the day seemed to celebrate felt tame. I knew that Earth Day had a grassroots history, arising from a series of teach-ins in 1970. Its creation punctuated the limited but important successes of the green movement in the late 1960s and early 70s, but I had trouble thinking of Earth Day as anything other than a reminder of my own anxieties and hang-ups around the many green movements’ failures.

This year, however, I have been reading about the mass-marketing campaign around the 1990 Earth Day TV special. This special, which celebrated the holiday’s twentieth anniversary (and that you can watch without much trouble if you nose around Google), gathered a brace of TV stars for a “TV teach-in” (my words) trying to raise awareness of pollution and other environmental issues.[1] Earth Day 1990’s TV special has its merits, to be sure, but watching it reconfirmed the way I saw Earth Day all along: a special day where people get together and feel bad about their individual responsibility for wrecking the planet. Not to mention a day where the national and global media make endless hay out of the idea that ‘if we all work together, we can change the world’ while ignoring corporate and state responsibility for the crises (I need not name them) that keep me up at night. It’s the kind of sunshine-and-roses environmentalism I grew up with and that has turned out to be so inadequate to the problems we face.

So far so grim. Still, I felt so strongly about this that I wanted to make a piece of art working through these feelings about Earth Day. Though I at first resisted this idea—after all, making an individualized response to the pop-individualism of Earth Day seemed silly. I chose to keep going, though. I wanted to give Earth Day a chance and see if I could imagine how that individualism I rightly scoffed at could be helpful. After tinkering with my art software and writing down notes for a day or two, it dawned on me: I should make a book about the source of our love for Earth, and the reason why I care so much about the blue planet in the first place.[2]

When I burned out of activism and narrowly avoided losing my grip on my studies as well, much of the reason was the sense of powerlessness and despair that overcame me. Even though I think Earth Day has been sucked into the same torrent of hype and excess that endangers so much of Earth in the first place, reading about the origins of the day and making art about why I started my path in environmental history in the first place moved me to reassess Earth Day. Not only is the day a reminder that big collective victories can and have been won, but also a reminder that collective actions come from people sharing their life as the Earth and their sense of belonging together. A series of teach-ins became a national holiday. Even if our future is deadly uncertain, we have no idea where or when a breakthrough will occur.

Ultimately, it’s the love that radiates from the world into my dreams—the Earth within as well as the Earth outside—that makes me devote myself to learning and teaching Earth’s history. While I want to resist the corny idea that people coming together will ‘save the world,’ I think it’s worth at least trying to smile once in a while and celebrating the beauty and love we are trying to protect and grow.

The How: Making Art to Fit the Message

I’m jealous of kid’s books. They are, in so many ways, flat out better than the books we adults make for each other. I would go as far as to say that some of our best environmental thinkers have published in children’s literature. While I was raised on the DK Eyewitness books with their sumptuous cross-section illustrations, modern children can read picture books like Pablo Salvaje’s Animalkind, a book that makes vivid and tangible connections between living things. While there’s nothing wrong with scholars’ impulse to complicate, complicate, complicate in an effort to understand the world more completely, Salvaje’s printed pages illuminate animals in ways the Chicago manual could never dream of. While working on my dissertation, then, I’ve sought ways to take my research and create images out of it. In other words, I wanted to make art that embodies the best of environmental history’s insights while provoking readers to think more deeply.

To do this, I created a set of collaged pages to be striking and graphic. The process was intuitive but goal-driven. Since the text I had in mind was more searching and questioning than explanatory, the images needed to carry this montage of questions and keep it interesting for the reader. The beauty of illustration is that it can bring out not just the way the world is as seen through a mechanical lens but the way Earth shows itself to a subjective eye. And though we often pursue objectivity and treat the skew of an individual’s perspective with embarrassment, this is where creative passion comes from. It’s these connections, formed through sincere questioning, I wanted to highlight with my book.

The Conclusion

Since I don’t want to reduce the book’s questions or images any further, I would like to spend my last paragraph highlighting some of the people I feel have done the best picture book writing about the environment. I’ve mentioned Pablo Salvaje already, of course. Mo Willems’ book, Edwina: The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, uses its title character to comment on the split between what we know and how we live with that knowledge. Willems is a cornerstone inspiration to all of my art, and his curiosity about the world gives me much-needed sparks of energy. A slightly older book that tells a remarkably compact environmental story with illustrations is Leo Hartas’ The Apartment Book, and all of the Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness books are worth a look to get ideas on how to present information in a way that is dense without snuffing out fun and curiosity.

Thank you for reading my picture book. I wish you all a belated, happy Earth Day, no matter how well-earned our mixed feelings about it might be.

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[1] See Finis Dunaway’s book Seeing Green, specifically the chapter “Global Crisis, Green Consumers: The Media Packaging of Earth Day 1990” for a thorough unpacking of this TV event.

[2] I resist saying “we” since the book is more about my own feelings about Earth Day than collective responsibility or defining any universal human response to environmental problems.

Edited by Diana M. Valencia, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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