Between the Lines: Collaborators in the Chronicling of Destruction and Hope

June 1, 2016

Between the Lines

For the latest installment of Between the Lines, an author Q & A, SEJournal book editor Tom Henry interviewed award-winning children’s nature book author Lynne Cherry, best known for“The Great Kapok Tree,” which sold more than a million copies and became a staple in elementary schools. Cherry speaks about her career, as well as her longstanding collaboration with the late Gary Braasch, a renowned photojournalist and past SEJ member who passed away March 7 while snorkeling and photographing coral bleaching on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Cherry described Braasch, a charter member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a founder of the North American Nature Photography Association, as a great “chronicler of the world’s beauty and its destruction” who “wanted desperately to move the world’s leaders to take climate change seriously.” Excerpts of the email interview follow.

Accompanied in 2006 by environmental photojournalist Gary Braasch, with whom she collaborated on a number of projects, Lynne Cherry negotiates the waters of the Bayou de View State Wildlife Management Area in northeast Arkansas, where sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, had been reported the previous year. Photo: © James R. Hill, III


SEJournal: What inspires you about children and about writing in general? How do you see your role as an environmental communicator?

Lynne Cherry: I love the honesty, innocence and sensitivity of children. I can remember my own deep attachment to my own childhood woods, which I saw bulldozed before my eyes. Loss and emotional pain can motivate us to try and change things. Also, I remember how books I read as a child were a gift of enlightenment and “time travel,” influencing my worldview. I’ve heard from thousands of children about how my books and films have made them look at the world differently, with more empathy for other living beings and the realization that they can change the world. I love writing for its own sake but I also know that our books, films and photographs are making a difference. I teach children love of nature and how to protect our world. I teach educators and scientists the psychology of climate communication emphasizing how solutions and action are essential.

SEJournal: The world has embraced visual communication a great deal because of advances in digital journalism, video, still photography and multimedia. How has this carried over to you as a children’s book author specializing in environmental communications?

Cherry: In 2009, Gary Braasch and I concluded that in order to reach a large segment of the public we needed to engage millions of young people; and, to reach them, we had to employ electronic media. As a children’s book author, I understood the power of stories. And from Gary’s long-time partner, Joan Rothlein, I know that he was motivated in his love for the Earth by his love for his son, Cedar, and wanted to protect the world for him and all children. So we created the “Young Voices for the Planet” films to showcase true stories of youth speaking out, taking action on climate change and reducing CO2, thereby empowering and inspiring other young people. Grown men weep when they hear 11-year-old Felix Finkbeiner in “Plant for the Planet” say, “If the adults won’t do something, we have to do it because we will live on Earth for another 80 years and our children even longer.”

On March 5 [two days before Braasch’s death], I spoke to Gary in Australia to tell him the good news: Our “Young Voices for the Planet” films [that] were being distributed by American Public Television and 56 public broadcasting stations would be airing our two half-hour shows (“Kids Lead the Way” and “Cool Kids vs. Warm Planet”) and the 10 short interstitials. This had been our dream. The films would be viewed by nearly 12 million people. A team of educators was creating curriculum for all the films for PBS Learning Media to teach about self-efficacy, civic engagement, democracy and how youth, even though they can’t vote, can have a voice in local government. This curriculum could reach one-third of U.S. schools.

SEJournal: Backtracking a bit, how did you first meet Gary?

Cherry: Twenty-two years ago, biologist Nalini Nadkarni brought me into the ethereal, holy and transcendent ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Cutting down these ancient giants was sacrilege and I was writing a children’s book to protect them. I needed reference photos. Then I saw “Secrets of the Old Growth” by Gary, with photographs that captured these forests in a deeply emotional way — green darkness broken by God-like rays of light in vaulting natural cathedrals. Serendipitously, the next week I met Gary at a conference. I was struck by this pure soul, so grounded in his commitment to a higher good that he would not accept assignments from any entities causing harm to our planet. We bonded over our mutual despair at the juggernaut that was destroying so many places sacred and beautiful and our determination to change that. Educating children, he agreed, might help save the forests.

Gary’s help with my research for my illustrations for “The Dragon and the Unicorn” was the beginning of a deep friendship and an extraordinary multi-decade professional collaboration. Our interests and our work, like a braided stream, moved apart and met in confluence, over and over again throughout our lives.

SEJournal: What made him a special photographer?

Cherry: He wished to affect people emotionally with his images, to inspire everyone to take action. His images were evocative and arresting and were featured in magazines such as Audubon, National Geographic, The New York Times and Life. Gary was indomitable — capable, fearless, tough, sensitive, funny, humble, good-natured and with a great thirst for adventure. He also had extreme patience: Waiting for the moon to rise, fog to lift, snow to melt, seasons to change, tides to rise or reindeer to begin their long migration — and hiding inside a bush as they thundered by for an hour. One day he could be photographing tiny krill at the bottom of the food chain and the next day going up in a small plane to photograph an entire ecosystem being decimated by fracked gas wells.

Gary believed that if people could see evidence of climate change they would be motivated to do something about it. Some of his most famous photos were of receding glaciers. He found old photographs from the 1800s and 1900s and photographed what they looked like in 1999 forward. In 2006, these photographs were included in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Gary traveled widely, photographing and writing about many scientists who were unlocking mysteries of the natural world. During my years as artist-in-residence at many institutions, I introduced Gary to several scientists who were seeing drastic global changes.

He also synthesized dozens of scientific studies in his critically acclaimed 2007 book with Bill McKibben, “Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World.” Vanity Fair wrote, “This may be the most deeply researched photo book of all time.” A congressman held up the book on the floor of Congress beseeching his colleagues to read it. I think people will look back and see his book as a clarion call equivalent to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

SEJournal: In 2008, you and Gary collaborated on a highly acclaimed book “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming.” It received 15 major awards, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science award for Best Middle Grade Science Book of 2009. What kind of an impact do you believe it made? And what did you and Gary see in kids, in terms of their potential, their passion, curiosity and appreciation of the natural world?

Cherry: I suggested that we condense and simplify Gary’s book to translate climate science for children, the public and Congress. We thought our book would spark children to demand action. In the 30 years of speaking about environmental issues, I saw children get very upset about bad news, especially that affecting animals. Although adults bury their emotions, they, too, feel disturbed by gloomy predictions and often shut down and deny. My book, “A River Ran Wild,” used widely in elementary schools, inspired students to advocate to clean up local streams and rivers and protect forests. A League of Conservation Voters study showed that most people get their environmental information from materials their children bring home from school and that their kids are the greatest force upon them to lead a more sustainable life.

SEJournal: In the face of climate change, what hope do you personally have?

Cherry: When the United States realized that the Nazis were a lethal threat, we changed our economy almost overnight from making cars to building tanks and planes. The climate change threat is analogous — a looming evil that will destroy us if we do not take it seriously. Those of us who are not climate ostriches feel similar fears to what people in Nazi Germany must have felt watching the rise of Hitler. We cannot flee climate change. Our only recourse is to face it and make the changes we need to make quickly and to expose the dark money forces that are impeding the change to a renewable, sustainable and just economy.

SEJournal: Do you see your career heading down a different path at any point?

Cherry: My career path entails carrying on Gary’s legacy and our work to abate climate change. I have been involved in many campaigns and have learned that people taking action always trumps moneyed interests. The key is getting enough people standing up and demanding action. Four hundred thousand of us marched in New York City for climate change action [in September 2014]. I hope that soon there will be millions marching.

SEJournal: What’s next for you?

Cherry: I can’t wait to get back to writing and illustrating children’s books. I am collaborating with a NASA scientist and former astronaut to write and illustrate a book on the chemistry of the universe. I also hope to write a book about the bonobos in Africa.

Editor’s Note: See our centerspread of photos by Gary Braasch, in the digital issue, beginning on page 14. More of his work can be seen on his website, World View of Global Warming. Lynne Cherry’s web site is here.


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Summer 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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