Green Earth Book Award winner Patricia Newman shares how she inspires kids to rethink their plastic consumption

patti-newman-blogAn article in my local newspaper made the first ripples in my imagination for a book on ocean plastic. In 2009, the SEAPLEX team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography mounted the first expedition 1,000 miles into the North Pacific Central Gyre where currents trapped a mass of plastic. The team left San Diego to search for garbage the same day the article was published.

The nonfiction author in me wanted to know more. I followed the expedition via a blog that the graduate student scientists updated daily. The more I read, the more convinced I became that the expedition had all the makings of a great read. Mystery, adventure, and tragedy.

The scientists on the expedition studied various aspects of the ocean. I chose three. Miriam Goldstein examined how plastic affected the rafting community—the animals that hitch rides aboard floating debris. Darcy Taniguchi investigated phytoplankton—microscopic plants that provide the oxygen for nearly two out of every three breaths we take. Chelsea Rochman untangled the complex chemicals in plastic and whether they influenced marine life.

I knew that the strength of a prospective book lay in their hands, but would they allow me to interview them for several hours? At the time, I had no book contract and no guarantee that their story would be told. I had to convince them to share their successes and failures, and to communicate the passion that made them leave home for 21 days to scoop garbage from the sea.

Newman coverDuring the research and writing process a new idea took hold: What if Plastic, Ahoy! helped readers change their habits? And what if my readers then changed the habits of others?

Now that Plastic, Ahoy! is a Green Earth Book Award winner and was a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru Science Books and Films prize, the idea to change readers’ habits seems obvious, but at the beginning of a new book nothing is obvious.

I continue to hear from readers who want to make a difference. One 5th grade class made reusable grocery bags from old t-shirts, and abandoned plastic cutlery in the cafeteria in favor of regular silverware that they wash every day. A first grade class calculated the amount of trash they threw away in their lunch room, and as a result changed from Styrofoam trays to reusable ones. An eighth grade English and Social Studies class wrote position papers on ocean plastic, and held mock debates about microbeads during their state capitol field trip. Activities like these increase kids’ depth of knowledge, moving them beyond simple recall and skills/concepts to strategic and extended thinking.

Plastic is the one ocean problem over which kids have power. They can encourage restaurants to ditch their auto-straw practices. They can remind parents to bring reusable bags to the grocery store. And they can download the microbeads app to be sure their soaps and toothpastes are plastic-free. Kids can be change agents, and Plastic, Ahoy! proves it.

Patricia Newman is the author of many books for young readers, including Jingle the Brass, a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Smithsonian-recommended book; and Nugget on the Flight Deck, a California Reading Association Eureka! Silver Honor Book for Nonfiction. Visit www.patriciamnewman.com for details.

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