Carmelita C. Ballesteros is a grandmother, teacher, children's book author, and occasional blogger from the Philippines. She was born and raised in Nasugbu, Batangas, then an idyllic town by the sea. Currently based in Singapore, she teaches Children's Literature at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. For more information, visit her blog.
Do 21st century Filipino children understand climate change? Ever since I asked myself this question, I started to think of how I could help them grasp such a big idea. How could I help scarred children heal and come to terms with traumatizing experiences related to climate change? How could I help inspire fortunate children to succor the needy? And most importantly, how could I help animate tomorrow’s leaders to nurse our sick planet back to health? That’s why I wrote the picture book Annie D. Ant (Panday-Isip, 2003): to try to help children make sense of climate change, and specifically of El Niño.
Why El Niño? First, before explaining, let me describe the 20th century where I come from.
In the 1950s, the coast line of my home town was strewn with starfish and seashells. One of my fondest memories is of strolling down the beach with my parents and siblings while picking up incredibly beautiful and exquisite seashells.
Once in a while, my childhood would be visited by annoying storms. But they were few and mild. Most of the time, Mother Nature was gentle and generous. Never in my childhood did I experience want. There was always plenty of food on the table, ample potable water for drinking and bathing, clean rivers and seas teeming with fish and seafood, verdant fields and orchards yielding abundant harvests of rice, corn, vegetables, and fruits.
A drought was something unthinkable for me until I witnessed the El Niño of 1997-1998, which ravaged 68% of the Philippines. Back then, I was doing educational consultancy work, island-hopping from the northern tip to the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago. During my journeys, I saw hectares of brown fields, cracked open and parched. I saw rivers, streams, and fishponds gone dry and dead. I saw evergreen trees shed autumn leaves. I saw people lining up everywhere for scarce supply of potable water. I lived through the era of ‘brown-outs’ – times of the day when electricity was cut off because it was in short supply.
How did my childhood of plenty deteriorate into my middle age of scarcity? The answer is climate change. My generation around the world, not only in the Philippines, has clearly abused the environment. In pursuit of material wealth and convenience, we have generated trillions of tons of toxic by-products that were/are dumped into rivers and seas and released into the atmosphere. Thus, Mother Earth has fallen ill: one moment she is assaulted by a typhoon, the next, seized by El Niño.
"What’s El Niño?" Annie D. Ant's half-sister, Georgia Grass-Hoppe wants to know. “[It means] We won’t have any rain,” Annie D. Ant tells her.
Georgia is thrilled because she will be able to sing and dance all year. But Annie tells her that, without rain, they won’t have any food. To prepare for the drought, they stock food and water while their neighbors laugh at them.
By writing Annie D. Ant, I hoped to provide other teachers like me with a resource for discussing climate change with their students. Not every El Niño spell is synonymous with severe drought. Effects on weather vary with each event, but El Niño is associated with floods, droughts and other weather disturbances in many parts of the world, and I chose to focus on drought because that’s how children in the Philippines have experienced it.
Picture books create emotional engagement which factual accounts often cannot achieve. When we are emotionally engaged, we understand. We remember. And we spring into action, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, like bringing our own recyclable shopping bags or baskets when we go to the market.
I believe Annie D. Ant can inspire teachers willing to explore the topic of climate change with their students to develop many engrossing reading and post-reading activities, such as interactive read-alouds; an informal debate; a moot court, mock press conference or TV newscast; poster-making; song or poetry writing; and more. Annie is just a tiny ant in the rich Animal Kingdom in the book. She doesn’t count much in the hierarchy of animals. However, through her example, children can learn the precious lessons of heeding an early warning, preparing for a disaster, sharing resources, and organizing international aid (through e-mail, Annie D. Ant learns about El Niño; through e-mail, she rallies world support). Most especially, children can be guided toward asking and answering critical questions such as “Why is climate change happening?” and “What can we do to help heal Mother Earth?”
Perhaps, it is the imagination and creativity of children which will save our planet. Perhaps, by helping children make sense of climate change, we, culprits of environmental degradation, shall be helping ourselves make amends to present and future generations.
Posted October 2009