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Chelsea Clinton on talking to kids about the environment and what’s going on in the world

Chelsea Clinton on talking to kids about the environment and what’s going on in the world
Chelsea Clinton's children’s book, “Don’t Let Them Disappear," illustrated by Gianno Marino, is a paean to endangered species around the globe and a guide that offers ways to help save them. (Gianna Marino / Penguin Young Read)

Amid the daily hustle of jobs to do and families to feed, local communities to foster and personal cultures to preserve, it can sometimes be easy to forget that the planet is massive and she's also mad as hell. Climate change is more than just a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor — although Save Our Swirled was delicious — and protecting the environment involves a lot of moving parts. From the air we breathe to the spikes in temperature, it's not just an issue that affects human beings either.

The future, no matter what it looks like, is what we are leaving to our children. As parents, we have a responsibility to help shape a new and sustaining narrative that is inclusive, thoughtful and just and that recognizes, to reference another beloved author, “All Creatures Great and Small.” James Herriot, the pen name for English veterinarian James Alfred Wight, is known for his series of reverent animal stories published in the 1970s celebrating the integrity of animals in our world. In that same vein, Chelsea Clinton has published her fifth children’s book, “Don’t Let Them Disappear,” illustrated by Gianno Marino, as a paean to endangered species around the globe and a guide that offers ways to help save them.

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Chelsea Clinton, who has published her third children's book, will be at The Times' Festival of Books.
Chelsea Clinton, who has published her third children's book, will be at The Times' Festival of Books. (Peter Kramer / NBC)

White nationalism is on the rise, climate change is burning up the planet, Donald Trump is president, and Chelsea Clinton has put out a picture book about pandas and elephants. Tell me why this book is important right now.

Well, thank you for the context and for the conversation. I spent a lot of time listening to kids, interviewing kids about what they care about, and that process helped produce my first book for young readers. One of the issues that I heard consistently that kids really care about is the environment, broadly, and often animals specifically, and the deep concern for animal health and animal well-being, and also what could they do? Whether in their local communities or around the world to help protect animals they cared about and felt drawn to. I think particularly now, although I also think always, but particularly now, we need to be listening to young people and responding to their desire to help make the world a healthier, more sustainable place, and try to empower them to do just that.

You said that you interviewed a lot of young kids, and I wonder: Do you consider kids from wildly different socioeconomic and race backgrounds and experiences when you write these books? Do you think about how they resonate or fall differently for kids from different backgrounds?

Absolutely. And for every kid's book that I've written that's been action oriented, I've had not only kids that I've spoken to before I've written them, but a diverse group of kid readers that I take feedback from, because I want to know whether or not the material resonates, is compelling, feels relevant to them. And so your question is one that's hugely important to me, and that I at least try to answer through the process of every book.

An interior page from Chelsea Clinton's third children's book, "Don't Let Them Disappear," illustrated by Gianno Marino.
An interior page from Chelsea Clinton's third children's book, "Don't Let Them Disappear," illustrated by Gianno Marino. (Gianna Marino/Penguin Young Read)

I ask in part because I saw on your Twitter timeline that “Ten Minutes to Bedtime” is one of your favorite books to read to your kids. That was one of our favorites too. And there is this sense that when they're little, they all hear the same sort of wonder and amusement in stories and storytelling, but then as a black mother, I see something happen that acutely differentiates childhood experiences, like Tamir Rice gets shot and killed for playing with a toy gun on a playground across from her house. And then I think, does it even matter if they hear stories the same in their home? Because then they go out into the world, their experiences are so different.

I think you have better insight into the question of what's right for your own kids than anyone else would. Certainly I do think every parent has to talk to our kids about, in an age-appropriate way, what’s happening in the world, and whether that is why we diligently take out recycling because it's our responsibility to do what we can to fight climate change and use that daily activity as a way to talk about climate change, which otherwise I think is quite abstract for kids. It's getting warmer, there's storms that are getting more intense, they're people that are having a harder time accessing healthy food and clean water, homes are being destroyed. They may understand that, but being able to connect it to and that's why we do what we do at home, I think that's really important.

Not with my 2-year-old but with my 4-year old, we talked about the family separations at the border and how fundamentally wrong it is that any child would be taken away from their family. And my daughter, thankfully has this visceral reaction, "That's just so bad. Like why are there bad people that do that?" I say, "Well, I don't know the answer to that, but I know that the way we try to answer that is to stop it from happening."

Right, and I think too as parents, our goal is to try to harness that visceral reaction in our children and cultivate it. But it so devastatingly hard with all of the outside forces that are happening. You mentioned age-appropriate conversations, but I feel like that's shifting too, given the world we're living in. I mean, what does that feel like for you with your 4-year-old to talk about families being separated?

I think it just feels necessary because I want her to know what's happening in our country, particularly as it relates to kids. We also talk about things that she may encounter living in New York City. When I hear on the radio in the morning that there are reports of ICE at a subway station near where we live, very close to one that she was going to get on later to go to a dance class, I spoke to her over breakfast that morning about how if she saw people who were coming onto the subway, what does that mean? I don't think she quite understood that as well as the clarity around child separations or other issues that we talked about, but I didn't want her to be surprised or unprepared if that did happen while she was on the subway and I also wanted to plant the seeds. I don't expect her at 4 to do anything about that, but I do think part of being a citizen is standing up to speech and behavior that we don't agree with and that we don't think is appropriate.

"Don't Let Them Disappear" illustrator Gianna Marino
"Don't Let Them Disappear" illustrator Gianna Marino (LIsa Kristine)

Right. And of course your experience as a kid, an entirely different kind of thing — growing up in the White House, sheltered insofar as safety — how do you think the books that you read and that were read to you as a child influenced or impacted how you operate in the world today?

I think that the books that I really remember reading when I was little are some of the iconic books — “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” — and those were all about supporting imagination and also giving children a safe environment. I think they were just reinforcing what my parents were saying to me and trying to model otherwise, helping me discover the world and also feel safe while doing that. And something I believe every child deserves to have the right to, and yet so many millions of children in our country don't.

What kind of shift does it take for you, what is the process of parenting young children, writing picture books, and then being publicly confronted in whatever way, at the vigil for the New Zealand Mosque terrorist attacks or on Twitter, where you have a very major presence. How do you adapt, and I guess, how do you self care?

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The most important part of my life is being a parent. And everything else that I do, whether it is in my writing or I teach at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, or in my work with the foundation or other aspects of advocacy, or just walking down the street, I try to see and live through the prism of how do I best help create a world that I want my children, all children, to grow up in. And that I think is the answer to your question.

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"Don't Let Them Disappear" by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Gianna Marino.
"Don't Let Them Disappear" by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Gianna Marino. (Philomel Books)

There's so much joy in these images and in this story, and I think one of the things we can all agree about children's books is that there is an intense sense of joy. Where do you find the most joy in your life?

With my kids, spending time with my children and reading books with my kids and going to the park with them, and just watching them discover the world. And loving them and protecting them while they're doing that.

And are these books for them?

Absolutely.

::

Chelsea Clinton at the L.A. Times Festival of Books: Clinton appears at 12:30 on April 14 in conversation with The Times’ Mary McNamara.

Carroll is a cultural critic and editor of special projects at WNYC, and one of The Times' critics at large. Her memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze,” is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.

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