AWP '19 Observations: “Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers”

by Tanya Ward Goodman

Panelists: Shanetia Clark, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Schrefer, Sherri L. Smith, Cecil Castellucci


I went to the AWP 2019 Panel, Surfing the Green Wave: Engaging Environmental & Social Issues for Young Readers because I thought learning “how literature might engage a generation that is inheriting global problems on an unprecedented scale” might help me navigate this difficult and continuing conversation with my own teenaged children. I came away with new tools to deepen my writing as well as constructive ways to address my worries about the state of our world.

“Stories shape the way we think and act,” explained moderator, Shanetia Clark. She asked us to look at how literature changes to address new problems and wondered what might lie beyond apocalyptic fiction. She’d gathered four writers, Cecil Castelucci, Todd Mitchell, Eliot Shrefer, and Sherri L. Smith, to muse on the central question of “what now?”

By defining books as “conversation beginners,” Mitchell encourages his readers to think beyond the text. “What does this book ask you to do next?” he wondered. All four writers agreed and talked about the value of showing the effort of moving toward Utopia.

Writing from a “post crisis point,” Castelucci explained, makes the story about hope and offers a chance to re-build. She’s especially interested in showing what she calls “agency in the face of crisis.”

Smith, whose novel was inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, offered her take. “In times of crisis,” she said, “it’s often the communities who help, rather than the establishment.” She asked us to look at the ways calamity can be a uniting force.

Schrefer broadened the idea of community to include the natural world. After researching the Bonobos ape, he was inspired to write a quartet of books. “I want the reader to think, I’m linked with this creature,” he said. In pursuit of emotional connection, he edits much of his research out of the final draft, relying instead on character and story to convey truth in an entertaining way. “I write sad books,” he said. “I need to steer this car as much as I can in the other direction.”

Castelucci finds that the world of comics gives her a broader path to tackle uncomfortable topics. “People who are resistant to climate change,” she said, “Are a lot more open when you have Wonder Woman doing something.” She believes deeply in the relationship of science and science fiction. “It’s a circular system of inspiration,” she said. “Part of our job is to inspire new inventions and encourage the pushing of boundaries.”

Smith agreed. Her recent work on the Avatar comic book series, has blended fantasy with reality and helped her understand the importance of re-orienting ourselves to nature. “Spreading our empathy to every living thing means we care as much for the planet as we care for ourselves.”

In order to avoid being preachy, Mitchell often puts what he really wants to say in the mouth of the villain. “Let the humanity rise to the surface.”

Putting character and emotion at the center of these big stories establishes a comfort zone for readers that can ease recognition of larger truths. Zombies can stand in for real-world threats. Using issues of class, social status and economic imbalance as plot points help readers connect to their own experiences and envision real life solutions. “Write to see what you don’t know,” reminded Mitchell. In this way, reading becomes a kind of practice for turning anxiety to action.


Panelist Books Discussed:

Todd Mitchell, The Last Panther

Eliot Schrefer, The Ape Quartet: Endangered, Threatened, Rescued, Orphaned

Sherri L. Smith, Orleans

Cecil Castellucci, Shade, The Changing Girl


Panelist Recommended Books:

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Dry by Neil Schusterman.


Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown.”  Her essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesOrange County Register, OC Family, Luxe, Alligator JuniperPerceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary MamaThe Huffington Post, Brain, Child and as a blogger for