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Talking Trash for Ten Years: Interview with Children’s Author Patricia Newman

Children’s author (and PLOS SciComm contributor) Patricia Newman is celebrating a landmark anniversary of her renowned book on improving our environment. In this interview with PLOS SciComm editor Bill Sullivan, she reflects on the book’s success and shares strategies for communicating science to people of all ages.

Sullivan: Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of your book, Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch! What drove your interest in climate change, particularly with respect to plastics as pollution?

Newman: Thank you! Plastic, Ahoy! changed my life and, I’m proud to report, the lives of several readers. It was one of the first books for children about ocean plastic and continues to be a groundbreaking read that empowers children, educators, and parents to act.

I first read about plastic marine debris in the Sacramento Bee while eating breakfast. I remember the moment clearly. The article described The Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) organized by graduate students at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. They planned to study the plastic debris floating 2,000 miles from shore in the open ocean. I stopped eating and started asking questions:  A man-made substance in the open ocean, really? How did it get there? Had anyone studied this before? Am I the last to know? Something changed in me that morning. I had to know more. I had to do more.

I learned that SEAPLEX was one of the first groups to study plastic marine debris. I followed the scientists’ progress on their expedition blog. Once they returned to shore, I arranged to interview three of them—all women as it happened.

Sullivan: Your book was written for kids aged 8-12. What draws you to communicating science to younger audiences? What unique challenges might one expect to face in that form of science communication?

Newman: I loved science when I was a child, especially hands-on experiments. I remember feeling totally engaged and thinking that what I was doing mattered. When the universe handed me the SEAPLEX expedition, that science-loving kid resurfaced. Here was a chance to write about a real-world problem with direct consequences for us and our environment and feature real scientists doing real science.

Communicating science to kids is a lot like communicating science to adults. Like most science communicators, I define the unique vocabulary in the context of the story. I pour over the methodology sections of scientific studies to pull out as many details as possible to help young readers picture where the study takes place and how it works. I ask the scientists about their childhood to show readers they can grow up to be scientists too. And I connect the scientists’ findings to my readers’ lives. I always ask myself, “Who cares?” or, “Why does this matter?” I also never talk down to my audience just because they are younger.

Sullivan: Based on your experience, how might we empower young people to become engaged with using science to improve the state of the world?

Newman: Young people are scientists at heart. They grow up wondering and questioning—the foundation of the scientific process. As adults, we often need to step out of the way and let children wonder, and then guide them along the path to an answer.

Here are my top six tips for discussing marine debris and climate change (as it affects the ocean) with young people: 

1. Ask “Who cares?” Facts in a vacuum are simply facts. They only become meaningful when we understand their significance to our lives. 

For example, here’s a fact: plastics account for about 3.4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions—more than the entire aviation industry—and make up around 6% of global oil demand as of 2014, according to a report from the World Economic Forum [MIT Technology Review, Oct. 19, 2023]. At first glance, what’s not to understand, right? But without the knowledge of how nature works, children—and even adults—might not understand the true significance of this statement.

2. Activate prior knowledge: When I speak about the ocean, I begin by asking my young audiences: Who’s visited the ocean? Who’s snorkeled?  What did you see? 

3. Make connections. Then, we discuss the ways the ocean supports life on Earth. Children are astounded that ocean plants make nearly half of the oxygen we need to live. Kids usually understand photosynthesis but have no idea that plants in the ocean feed themselves like plants on land. 

I demonstrate how the ocean provides our food and segue into how the ocean provides our drinking water via the water cycle. 

4. Demonstrate how our habits affect the ocean. I show examples of how plastic debris and the excess carbon dioxide pumped into our atmosphere from fossil fuel emissions pollute the ocean (our water source) and harm marine life (our food source). I usually show images of marine life colonizing plastic debris or a video about a turtle who swallowed fishing line. 

5. Read. Find out what others are doing to solve our plastic problem. Plastic, Ahoy! and Planet Ocean are two great places to start.

6. Guide action. Suddenly, young people care about the state of the ocean and are empowered to act on its behalf. Ask children to brainstorm ways to help. Most of them will suggest recycling, but I will explain why recycling isn’t working, and ask them to think of other ideas. Children have suggested they pack zero waste lunches; bring reusable water bottles to school; work with the school cafeteria to reduce plastic; skip the straw in restaurants; bring reusable grocery bags to the store; make reusable grocery bags out of old t-shirts; and buy items packaged in glass or aluminum cans.

If you need more guidance, try a few of the activities available on my website:

Plastic, Ahoy! Curriculum Guide

Planet Ocean Curriculum Guide

LitLinks: How to celebrate #PlasticFreeJuly and be a voice for change

LitLinks: Trash Team Litter-ature for Waste Litter-acy

LitLinks: How time travel will help students reduce single-use plastic

LitLinks: Let’s investigate the miracle of phytoplankton, the ocean’s oxygen-makers

Ocean Clean-up Design Challenge and Aging Plastic Experiment

Sullivan: I’d love to hear some of the successes spurred by your book and work as a science communicator.

Newman: I’m so grateful to the young people, educators, and parents who have embraced Plastic, Ahoy! The success stories are numerous. 

First graders weighed their lunchtime trash, then reduced the amount of plastic they used by switching to reusable lunch trays rather than disposable Styrofoam trays. They reweighed their trash to prove their actions worked.

A sixth grader read Plastic, Ahoy! and later wrote her college admissions essay about the impact the book had on her decision to study marine debris. 

Fourth graders reused, recycled, and refused single-use plastic for an entire school year and reduced their landfill waste to a six-inch trash can.

Gabriella and Francesca first read Plastic, Ahoy! when they were eight- and ten-years old. They initiated a family project to curb their plastic consumption, habits they continue to follow today (see video).

Librarian Karen Homer (see video) used Plastic, Ahoy! in a school-wide project to increase awareness of plastic consumption.

Sullivan: Do you experience a lot of pushback regarding the problem of climate change? How do you deal with this issue?

Newman: I think Plastic, Ahoy! and a more recent book I wrote, Planet Ocean, have had a positive impact on climate change awareness. Ten years ago, there seemed to be more disagreement about the effects of marine debris and the causes of climate change. Now, I’m pleasantly surprised how little pushback I receive. Most schools I’ve visited incorporate some sort of environmental education into their curriculum. 

What I see more than pushback is climate anxiety. Many young people feel overwhelmed by the distressing environmental headlines. And I sympathize. I feel overwhelmed too. But I always refer back to the scientists, artists, photographers, and children in my books because they are the hope. They are examples of who we can aspire to be and what we can aspire to achieve. I tell readers we can’t do everything, but we can do something. Start small. Start local. And soon they’ll realize how easy it is to become a voice for nature.

Patricia Newman wants us all to know we are part of nature. As a Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, she shows us how our actions ripple around the world, empowers us to find our own connections to nature, and encourages us to use our imaginations to act on behalf of our communities. Patricia says, “I once heard Michelle Obama describe community service as the work you do for the next generation—it’s the rent we pay for living. I like to think of my books as my contribution towards that rent.” Distinguished titles include Giant Rays of Hope (releasing Sept. 2024); A River’s Gifts; Planet Ocean; Eavesdropping on Elephants, Sea Otter Heroes; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue; and Plastic, Ahoy!

Visit Patricia’s website or reach out to her on social media:  Twitter/X  Instagram  Bluesky  Facebook  Pinterest

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