HOW OUR STORIES CAN SAVE THE WORLD (or “The Chicken Sees”) by multi-award-winning children’s author Todd Mitchell

We are creatures of narrative. A string of facts and figures [will not] displace a persuasive story. The only thing that will replace a story is a story. —George Monbiot

Seven years ago, I watched the foothills near my house burst into flames. For days, the glow of the fires flickered through my bedroom window, like a thousand suns setting across the hillside.

One night we left our windows open to give us a break from the summer heat. But in the middle of the night the winds shifted and ashes from the fires filled our house. We woke the next morning to find every surface covered in a thick layer of ash.

We were lucky. Several people lost their homes in that fire. At the time, it was the largest wildfire in Colorado history. But these are record-breaking times, full of record-breaking heat waves, droughts, and storms, and since that summer Colorado has experienced even bigger wildfires.

For me, that summer was a wake-up call. The unprecedented damage caused by fires that year made me realize that climate change isn’t just a problem for the future. It’s a problem we need to deal with right now—before summers like the one I experienced become the norm.

But beyond getting solar panels for our house and biking to work, what could I do? I knew that stopping catastrophic climate change required large scale societal changes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a leader, or a person with an abundance of money or influence. I was just a writer. What difference could I make? What difference could any of us make in the face of such large problems? These questions haunted me.

Every book I write is inspired by a question—something I feel a powerful need to explore. So, I decided to write a book called The Last Panther to explore the question, “What could a young person do to change her community and save an ecosystem?”

I’ll admit, at first I didn’t think there was much that Kiri, the eleven-year-old heroine of The Last Panther could do. Yet, as I followed Kiri on her adventures, I was surprised to discover how big of an impact a child could have. Seeing how much Kiri changed her community filled me with hope.

The skeptic in me tried to dismiss this hope as just a pretty story. A fantasy. In the real world, a child couldn’t change a community like that, could she?

When I looked at my own life, though, I realized that my two young daughters had changed me in significant ways. My oldest daughter, for instance, convinced me to become a vegetarian when she was only four.

In fact, not only can kids change adults—they seem far better at changing adults than other adults are. Realizing this helped me see that kids are the key to creating the change we need, and they do it by telling others what they care about and what matters to them. Put simply, Kiri and my daughter changed me with stories.

Stories are far more powerful than we often think. Consider, for instance, this version of a Sikh story that I first encountered through the writer Ram Dass:

There once were two students who wanted to learn from a wise teacher. When they approached him, he gave them each a chicken and told them, “Go kill the chicken where no one can see.”

The first student went behind a fence, killed the chicken, and brought it back to the teacher.

The second student walked around for two days, then came back with the chicken still alive.

“Why didn’t you kill the chicken?” asked the teacher.

The student replied, “Everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

Even a simple story like this can change our perception of others (including chickens). Similarly, the book I wrote about a girl changing her community got me to see how the key to creating a better future wasn’t arguing with adults, but helping kids find their voices and tell their stories.

Todd’s photo of the 2012 Colorado wildfires near his home

Which brings me back to the climate crisis and what we can do to stop it. Although the environmental problems we’re facing might feel overwhelming, it’s important to remember that human-caused problems have human solutions. Right now, we have everything we need to solve the environmental problems we’re facing. All that’s missing is the will to do so, and stories can change this.

Stories like this one:

There once was a girl who was so upset about how little was being done to address climate change that she stopped going to school. At first, she sat alone outside with a sign that read “School Strike for Climate.” She probably thought no one saw her. She probably thought no one cared.

Then, quicker than she could imagine, people noticed and joined the girl in her protest for climate action. She sparked a movement which, in only one year, gained millions of followers and became the largest global youth protest in history.

Change can happen fast. You might not realize how quickly things can change when you’re focusing on the problems, but things are only the way they are because we make them this way, and we can change the way things are just as quickly.

That’s why it’s important to tell your story. Let others know what you care about and what matters to you. Develop your voice so you can create the world you want to live in. And when you do this, know that you’re not alone.

The chicken sees.

Todd Mitchell is the acclaimed author of seven MG and YA novels, including The Secret to Lying and The Traitor King. His newest book, The Naming Girl, has already been optioned for TV/film development. Todd is also a creative writing instructor at Colorado State University. Learn more about his amazing books at www.toddmitchellbooks.com.

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