I virtually met author Bijal Vachharajani this past summer at Scotland’s CYMERA Festival of Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writing. We talked with host and author Lauren James, along with author James Bradley, about how we were motivated to write stories that focus on climate change. The talk aired on YouTube on June 5, if you’re interested in watching it. Bijal’s work as an editor and children’s book author intrigued me, so I wanted to talk more with her about her newest book, A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, as well as dig more into her life, creative imagination, and other work.
I’m so happy to have recently met you at a climate writers’ panel during this summer’s CYMERA festival. I learned that you are a prolific writer of illustrated children’s fiction that is environmentally pressing. What books have you written?
It was so lovely to meet and talk to you as well, and I must confess: your website is a fabulous resource! My middle grade green books include A Cloud Called Bhura: Climate Champions to the Rescue, about a motley crew of tweens and teens who tackle a brown cloud of pollution that’s taken over their city – it won the AutHer Children’s Book Award in 2020; and So You Want to Know About the Environment, a non-fiction book about climate, food, waste, water, and wildlife. Apart from that, I have written three picture books about the environment: What’s Neema Eating Today?, The Seed Savers, and PS What’s up with the climate? I have co-authored two books: The Great Indian Nature Trail with Uncle Bikky with Rohan Chakravarty, and 10 Indian Champions who are Fighting to Save the Planet with Radha Rangarajan. There’s more on my website.
What are your thoughts on the importance of relating to children the planet’s ecological demise? It’s a scary subject, but many authors have found a way to tell the stories in a more positive way.
When I was studying the climate, I came across studies that talked about how climate communication needs to be framed more positively. I was quite fascinated by that because as a children’s author and editor, I do believe in stories that are laced with hope. It does not have to be straight-up giddy hope, but even a glimmer is good. Telling the complexities of the climate crisis with imagination and hope makes for compelling stories – and those are being published more and more. My work with children has led me to believe that children care. The fact is, we protect what we love. And we can see that in the kind of work children are doing across the world, demanding a better future. We need stories that fire their imagination, that give them answers to the ecological crisis, and give them space to ask questions.
When growing up, were you inspired by any particular environmental fiction?
I grew up in 80s India and the only books we had in our libraries were Enid Blyton’s, Nancy Drew’s, Archie’s Comics, and Russian picture books. A lot of Blyton’s portrayals of nature and animals stayed with me, as did the natural landscapes in those picture books. I realize now that perhaps the magical faraway tree is nothing but a metaphor for the marvelous worlds you find when you climb a real tree, with its canopy shyness, its visiting birds and insects and squirrels. But more than that, it was the stories my grandmother and mother told me about sparrows that come visit, and invitations from the moon to visit that influenced me. And of course, Target Magazine, which sadly no longer exists. I used to wait for it every month and read about adventures, and nature facts, and nature stories by Ruskin Bond.
It’s hard to pick one book of yours to focus on since several of your picture books are relevant! But let’s talk some about A Cloud Called Bhura. How did you come up with this story?
I was at The University for Peace, pursuing a Masters in Environment Security in 2012, and I read about the atmospheric brown cloud phenomenon (“bhura” means brown in Hindi). As I researched more, I started to wonder: What if a brown cloud was to come and hover over my home city of Mumbai? I was mostly fascinated with how people respond to climate change. Whether it’s the government, the private sector, civil society, the media – they influence how people think about the crisis more than science does. And so, I began writing a story about the different perspectives of fictional people – scientists, policy-makers, media professionals (and unprofessionals), film stars, industry leaders – who live in this city and how their perspectives inform everyone else, making climate stories more political, more of a trending topic, a matter of contention, rather than decoding the science to find solutions.
What’s going on in the story, and how did you imagine and create the characters?
Amni and Tammy wake up one morning to find the sky taken over by a huge brown cloud. Where did this cloud appear from? Along with their friends Mithil and Andrew, they set out to find out more while their city reels from the changes the cloud brings to the weather. Bhura Cloudus, as the media calls it, contains noxious gases, causes scalding rain to fall, makes birds flee the city, and suffocates every living thing. It’s a book about the changing global climate and the havoc it can cause. It’s also about the forces of friendship, trust, and community, which give hope and can help counter this deadly threat to humanity.
I have always believed in kid power so I decided to let the children of the story do the investigation. The stories are told from the perspective of Amni and Tammy, who are friends but also very different. And that raises questions of social justice and climate vulnerability as well. Mithil is, of course, all of our best friends. We all need someone who will bring a snack when on an adventure. Plus, he has a dog! Andrew is that wise friend who reminds us there is homework to be done while saving the world. In fact, while editing the book, my editor Sudeshna Shome Ghosh made me go back and add more of Andrew – and am glad I did. (Almost always listen to editors.) Then there’s a bunch of politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and twin scientists. And, of course, Bhura is a poor rhymester of a cloud.
I love Aindri’s illustrations (art directed by Maithili Doshi), which give this really distinct view of the cloud, the city, and the world as it unfolds because of this havoc – a microcosm of the spaces that children inhabit today.
Friendship seems to be important in your stories. How does friendship help children overcome frightening reality?
You are so right! I was a painfully shy child, but different friendships helped me change my worldview and the way I navigate this world. Fictional friendships do the same; they help readers seek refuge in an empathetic buddy, see themselves in the fights two pals might have (while, of course, rooting for them to stop being silly), and realize that friendships can be of different kinds. They don’t have to be human friendships. In my chapter book, Kitten Trouble, Rajiv Eipe illustrates the moment when the scared young protagonist finds that a warm kitten can be a friend (and vice versa). In fact, it was my editor Sayoni Basu who highlighted this relationship. Then there are friendships with visiting birds, caterpillars, or dogs that are meaningful in forging future nature relationships.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I haven’t been able to write much in the second wave of the pandemic. However, I just finished the first draft of my book for Hachette about a girl who is dealing with the loss of her father, and finds solace in shared grief and an ancient magical tree. It’s with my editor Nimmy Chacko right now so I am spending sleepless nights hoping she likes it. The book looks at nature and grief, and it’s written in the wake of the loss of my partner, so it’s a bit raw for me. I am just starting work on a book with my editor Smit Zaveri at Puffin, about a boy who thinks his mother is up to something sinister, like perhaps gobbling him up! And I’m waiting for the launch of an anti-plastic book with WWF-India. Phew!
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.