Have you heard of cli-fi? Even though the term has been around for a few years, I hadn’t heard of it until my editor mentioned this genre is growing in popularity among educators. Cli-fi stands for climate fiction – literature that imagines past, present, and future effects of human-made climate change. Similar to sci-fi, but solely focused on climate crisis related issues.

The trend is likely due in part to the efforts of Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist who has motivated millions of kids to raise their voices on the climate crisis. According to Nielsen Book Research, children’s publishers have been releasing and planning numerous books aimed at empowering young people to save the planet, calling it the “Greta Thunberg effect.” In the past year, booksellers have noted and responded to a high interest on this topic with kid readers especially. At Book People in Austin, for example, the store had devoted an entire endcap to books with climate crisis themes and a sign above it marked #clifi.

I didn’t know I’d be on the forefront of a trend when I started writing my fifth middle grade novel. I’m usually never on the forefront of anything – I remember being behind all the cool fashion and culture fads in middle school, probably because I was absorbed in whatever book I was reading at the time.

But eureka! The main character in my new middle grade novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, (May 26, Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) becomes a mini Greta in her small Wisconsin lakeside town after a harmful algal bloom threatens the livelihood of the lake, and the town itself. Cli-fi! And, an uplifting, positive story for these challenging times, highlighting the message that if we all work together, we can change things for the better.

In the story, 12-year old Annalise Oliver isn’t satisfied when the town authorities decide to see if the harmful bloom will dissipate on its own. She springs into action and researches solutions with the help of her friends. And then takes a risk to implement a nature-based remedy.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) have been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. You’ve probably seen a bloom – it looks like green scum covering the top of the water. They’re another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom.

HELLO FROM RENN LAKE is not only a story of youth environmental activism. There are also intertwined themes of abandonment and roots – literally and figuratively. Annalise, who was abandoned as an infant, is grappling with her unknown origins but instead of searching for where she came from, she makes a choice to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots are also part of the solution that may help Renn Lake recover. I based this plot element on real-life efforts that have helped polluted waterways become healthy again – the idea that the roots of water-loving plants can soak up toxic algae, similar to how wetlands act as natural purifiers.

A unique aspect of this novel is that Renn Lake, and its cousin Tru, a river, are narrators as well as Annalise. While I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Having the points of view of these unusual narrators deepens the events in a way that a human narrator couldn’t relay. Readers will really get the sense of the vital importance of water to our lives and how our actions are negatively affecting its viability.

There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination and refusal to accept complacency. There’s also an informational section in the back of the book for readers who want to learn more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms, and it’s narrated by one of the characters, Annalise’s friend Zach.

I’m so happy to see several other cli-fi middle grade books that have been published recently. Be sure to check out these terrific titles.

THE LIGHT IN THE LAKE, by Sarah R. Baughman

After twelve-year-old Addie’s twin brother drown in Maple Lake, she finds clues in his notebook about a mysterious creature that lives in the lake’s depths. When she accepts a job studying the lake for the summer, she discovers Maple Lake is in trouble, and the source of the pollution might be close to home.


An animal fantasy adventure novel about a reawakened evil that threatens an endangered rainforest. Mez, a panther, and her animal friends, must unravel an ancient mystery and face danger to save their rainforest home.


When catastrophe strikes their beloved upstairs neighbors, the Vanderbeeker children set out to build a magical healing garden in Harlem – in spite of a locked fence, thistles, and trash, and the conflicting plans of a wealthy real estate developer.

And, these two new nonfiction books for young readers will be sure to inspire and prompt action:


Twenty inspirational stories celebrating the pioneering work of a selection of earth heroes from all around the globe, from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough to Yin Yuzhen and Isatou Ceesay. Each tale is a beacon of hope in the fight for the future of our planet, proving that one person, no matter how small, can make a difference.


From deep in the ocean, around the Antarctic, to a Tanzanian forest, women throughout history have made discoveries that have helped and improved our world. Antarctic researcher Edith Farkas identified the hole in the Ozone Layer and Daphne Sheldrick cared for young orphaned elephants. In Gambia, Isatou Ceesay is spreading the message about the damaging consequences of plastic waste and educates women in local communities about recycling. This is a great compilation of women who have changed circumstances for the better.

With all of these books, the message is clear and positive: we are in this together globally, and every single of one of us can help in ways big and small. The health of our planet is more important than ever. During the coronavirus crisis, many people have been reminded just how restorative and soothing nature can be, not to mention vital to our survival. Let’s make a promise to take care of our water, land, air, and plants and animals so they will be here for future generations.

Michele’s website:

Michele on Twitter: @MicheleWHurwitz

Michele on Instagram: @micheleweberhurwitz

Michele Weber Hurwitz’s books include CALLI BE GOLD and THE SUMMER I SAVED THE WORLD IN 65 DAYS (both Penguin Random House/Wendy Lamb Books) and ETHAN MARCUS STANDS UP and ETHAN MARCUS MAKES HIS MARK (both Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). She lives in the Chicago area.

Interview: Christina Soontornvat

Tell us about the main characters:  Pong, Nok, and Somkit.

When we meet Pong and Somkit, they are nine-year-old orphaned boys who are living in the prison where they were born. Pong is a quiet boy with a special gift – a sort of superpower. He pays attention to things. That might seem like a small thing, but it enables him to see things other people miss – including magic. I gave Pong this quality because it’s something I wish I were better at. I’m always working on trying to live in the present and not let my mind wander. 

Somkit is the smallest boy at the prison (and the most picked on). He’s very smart and has a real knack for inventing things (my background is in mechanical engineering, and I loved creating a character who is a budding engineer). He’s also a wise-cracking funny guy, who is always teasing Pong. The two boys are more like brothers, really. Their friendship is heavily based on my dad’s friendships with the men he grew up with in Thailand. They all had a really strong bond that was shaped by their tough childhoods, and having to grow up a little too fast.   

All the children in the prison are reminded often that they won’t grow up to be much, and in fact they will probably just end up right back in jail. It’s a desolate place to be a child – especially for Pong, whose one true wish is to help make the world a better place. One day Pong gets his chance to escape, and leaves his best friend and his past behind forever. Or so he thinks (bum, bum, bum!). 

Nok is the prison warden’s perfect daughter, and she is determined to hunt Pong down and restore her family’s good name. She’s driven by a shameful secret in her past, and she wants to prove to her family that she’s worthy of their love. When we meet Nok she has lived a very privileged life, and until now she’s never confronted her privilege or questioned the system of oppression that rules their city. Of all the characters she is the one who has the most changing to do, and she is the character who I identify with the most. 

You have mentioned that Chattana is based on the city of Bangkok, Thailand. Can you tell us about the fantastical elements infused into Chattana, as well as the real ones?

Bangkok, like many cities and towns in Southeast Asia, is a river city. It has been called the “Venice of the East”, and when my dad was a boy it was even more prominent in daily life than it is now. People built their homes and businesses along the river. As a boy, my dad fished and swam there. He would hitch rides on the back of water taxis. His parents owned a cargo boat that would take goods up and down and back up the river again. So in his stories that he would tell me, the river was always important. 

The Chao Phraya River from above.
A temple on the river in Chiang Mai.

When I wrote A Wish in the Dark, I wanted to emphasize the river even more and so the city of Chattana has no roads at all, and everyone gets around by boat. A river is a wonderful element to have in a story because it’s a force of nature that imposes its will on the characters whether they like it or not. They either have to flow with the current, or fight the current. They can get trapped on one side or the other. A river is a dangerous thing (especially for Pong, who can’t swim), but also full of life. And of course, it’s so beautiful. One of my earliest memories is being in a boat at night on the river in Thailand and being mesmerized by the reflections of all the lights in the water. That moment felt magical and it’s one of the things that inspired me to make the lights of Chattana (literally) powered by magic. 

The Author on a river boat ride in Bangkok.

What was your favorite scene to write? Which one was the hardest?

For almost the entire book, the chapters switch back and forth between Pong and Nok’s points of view. But there are two chapters that are written from the point of view of very minor adult characters, and I had a ton of fun with those! These adults underestimate the kids (typical for adults!) and have zero clue about all the complex things going on in their lives. The adults are the complete opposite of Pong – they think they know everything, but because they don’t pay attention they are missing it all. Those scenes were so fun to write. 

The hardest scene to write was the ending, which stretches over several chapters. This is where all the separate threads of the story have to come together and tie up. The reader has to learn some surprising information and mysteries have to finally get solved. I also wanted the reader to absolutely burn through the pages and not be able to stop until they finished. So that scene had a lot of heavy lifting to do! It took a lot of rewrites, but I’m happy with the way it finally turned out. 

Once you have finished A Wish in the Dark, do you have recommendations for what to read next? 

If you’d like another twist on an old “classic” I highly recommend Hena Khan’s More to the Story, which is a modern retelling of Little Women starring four awesome Pakistani American sisters. If you want to read about more kids having incredible adventures across the world, City Spies by James Ponti is so much fun. An MG fantasy that also digs into important social issues that I am absolutely loving right now is Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan. 

And later this year, my middle grade nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen will be released. I didn’t originally plan to have two books set in Thailand come out in the same year, but it is a total thrill. I traveled back to Thailand to conduct in person interviews for All Thirteen, with my dad by my side to help me with research and translation. So in a way, I also got to work with my dad on two books in the same year, which has been such a joy. 

Nightly rituals – visiting the fruit markets after dinner.

Christina Soontornvat is the author of several books for young readers, including The Blunders, illustrated by Colin Jack, the middle-grade fantasy novel A Wish in the Dark, and the nonfiction All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. She holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in science education. Christina Soontornvat lives with her family in Austin, Texas.

Interview with Jennie Englund

Why did you choose to focus on mental health in Taylor Before and After?

Thank you for including Taylor and me as part of Mental Health Awareness Month!

As person who’s lived with depression for 22 years, and as a teacher seeing more and more students struggle with the condition, I felt called to craft a story about what it’s like to carry around depression today—among social media, news outlets, competition, pressures of school, family, and financial issues. For me, there’s been a desperation to try to push through those dark times— situational and clinical. I really loved that Rhoda Belleza–who acquired the project for MacMillan–picked up on that.

When I was Taylor’s age—13—in eighth grade in California, I rarely heard the word “depression.” We weren’t aware. Today is different—there’s greater understanding, more attention and acceptance, ways for us to get help and to feel less alone. People are waiting for us to reach out to them.

How have you gotten yourself through a hard time?

That’s a BEFORE prompt in the book—“What has helped you through a tough time?”—and Taylor writes how her closet saved her. But by that, she means more than jeans and an orange necklace; fashion may seem small, a tiny way of making through another day, but really, it’s having “a purpose, a future.”

I haven’t relied on my closet. But I’ve tried to pull myself together in other ways–getting outside, trying to compromise with my husband and kids, watering my plants, petting my cats, being an engaging teacher, applying for fellowships. I walk, hike, swim, and do yoga. I try to eat less treats than I crave. That’s all good work, but I still need medical help. I have a thorough doctor and a kind counselor.  I wish Taylor had those resources, or took up Sister Anne’s offer to talk. It would’ve made DURING more endurable.

Instead, Taylor tries eating blueberries, doing jumping jacks, getting outside, forcing herself to join a club at school. For people with depression, there’s BEFORE and AFTER, and there’s DURING, which can feel like the hardest part. It can be heavy, overwhelming, and seemingly permanent. But at the center of those lonely times is the promise it will get better. It does get better.

And always, there’s writing. “A blank page is an invitation to healing.”

How does the setting reflect character and plot?

Like the state of Hawaii and the island of Oahu, Taylor is part of something bigger, though she doesn’t always feel like she is. Yet, even on her darkest days, there is beauty in the natural world around her, and that beauty is there for all of us, if we look to it. Of course, there are days when volcanic ash blows over Oahu from the Big Island—“heavy and suffocating and gray”–but there are also days the tradewinds blow that vog back out again, “so cool and light, whispering promises of hope and change, you feel new and calm at the same time, the simple ha breathing onto and into and all through you. You’re alive and whole but also still.”

So, there’s dark and light?

Yes! In life, in the book! On the way to school one day, my son, Rees, who was 15 or 16 at the time, asked if I always have to be so deep. I guess I do.

But also, I laugh—A LOT! I peppered the story with scuttling lizards, a kiss-gone-wrong, a cat that eats enchiladas. Taylor’s life is tough, but it’s also very rich! It’s full of everything!

Can you speak to the unconventional structure of the story?

I took a huge risk on format—moving Taylor between before and after her life falls apart. The narration isn’t straightforward, linear, and clear because mental health isn’t straightforward, linear, or clear.Memory is affected—fragmented, jumbled—and thinking, concentrating, and problem solving can be difficult. We piece together moving forward and back—like the ocean’s flow, its vastness and depth, its reach.

Depression is a disorder, so it made sense to me to present Taylor’s story in a dis-ordered way. The School Library Journal reviewed Taylor Before and After as “appropriately disorienting.” I love the power, the truth, the irony of that! I had to be brave to put my art out there, vulnerable to criticism, but I did it on behalf of the brave mental health community who fights to “see another sunrise.”

And also, the story is told completely through prompts in Taylor’s Language Arts class?

Yes! Every “chapter” is a different prompt off the whiteboard in Miss Wilson’s class.

I remember the first time I gave a writing prompt a student skipped right over, writing instead about the broken washing machine that had flooded her apartment. This showed me humans need an outlet for our worry, our sadness and frustration. Writing is an opportunity. We can share space with pain, and at the same time use written expression as a journey, a process, a navigation through it.  

As a writer, mom, and writing teacher, I’ve seen the powerful healing of journaling…Getting our thoughts from our heads onto paper helps us with clarity and order. It’s empowering!!!

How have readers responded to the mental health thread?

Readers have AMAZED me!!!! They seem so thankful to have Taylor for a friend. And I’m grateful for their own stories!

The humanities chair at my college—a PhD in literature!—said he wished he’d read the book while his kids were Taylor’s age; he would’ve understood so much more about what they were going through, and could have been a more compassionate parent.

Since Taylor’s debut, I’ve been surprised to hear its impact on parents, teachers, counselors, librarians, and reviewers—as much as I’ve heard of its importance to sixth graders in Sacramento, for example.

It seems to break down the big picture of mental health in a way teens and those around them can understand.

I wrote Taylor for upper-middle-grade readers, which is a specific group. It straddles chapter books and YA–a unique and significant part of life, of growing up. When I was writing the story, I had early teens in my home and on my mind; I never thought about grown-up readers, so the book’s impact on them has been the biggest surprise of my publishing process.

And, there are the wonderful teens I was hoping to reach. One reader shared he’d made a big mistake during high school, and after reading Taylor, he could see the impact that mistake had had on his younger sister. He was remorseful, but also optimistic. There was still a future for both of them. They could move forward.

What is the backstory of the Author’s Note?

Ah, this is really lovely…Weslie Turner, my wise editor at MacMillan, really worked with me to get the wording here just right. We wanted support to feel accessible, relatable, and normalized. I’m not a medical worker, but I’m a person living with mental illness, and a sister. In the Author’s Note, along with resources, I share my 26-year old brother Mac’s story. He’s been on all sides of depression. It’s an ongoing challenge. He and I have been there for each other, for other folks, and have asked for, received, and offered support. There is help. There is hope. Eventually, Taylor realizes that when she shares her story with Henley.

What is one way we can support each other?

Taylor knows her mom is right: “the hard thing is the right thing.” Straight up, we can all be kinder to each other, to think again before judging someone. It might not be easy—we can see Taylor really struggle with the choice to be kind to her frenemy toward the end of the story—but the smallest kindnesses make a huge difference. They matter.

And what three words would you say to someone who suffers from a mental disorder?

YOU matter! Okay, that’s only two words. But, it’s everything.

National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Jennie Englund began Taylor Before and After during a teaching institute on Oahu. She lives in Oregon, where she teaches college research writing and firefighters.