by Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
John Coy and Natalie Capannelli’s new picture book, If We Were Gone: Imagining the World without People, is not your average picture book. In a review, Publishers Weekly called it a “disturbingly beautiful dystopian meditation.” When John, Natalie, art director Danielle Carnito, and I were working on the book, we certainly didn’t imagine that it would be released just as a global pandemic was spreading. The book’s launch party, which was scheduled for this past Saturday, was canceled, and our foremost concern is that everyone do what they need to do to take care of themselves–and to help those who need it.
If you’re curious about how If We Were Gone came to be and what sort of reactions students have had at school visits, author John Coy shares the story here.
John writes: If We Were Gone began as a conversation at a party with my friend the poet Juliet Patterson. She was talking about climate change and what was going to happen to the earth. I’d been thinking about this too, and I replied that the earth was going to be fine. It was the people who we needed to be worried about. We then talked about some of the ways earth would be different without humans.
The next day I started on a draft of the story. When I told my editor Carol Hinz what I working on, she was interested. I revised the story multiple times, and after Carol and Lerner agreed to publish it, Natalie Capannelli signed on as illustrator. Three years after that initial conversation with Juliet, If We Were Gone: Imagining the World without People is finished, just ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.
As I have been sharing If We Were Gone, a couple of surprises have emerged. One is how human-centric so much of the way we see the world is. We are used to being the center of attention, and it is very difficult for humans to step back and realize that not everything revolves around us. The second is how much easier it is for kids to imagine the idea of people not being here than it is for adults.
When I present the book to students, they listen intently and are immediately pulled in by Natalie’s stunning pictures. At the end, they raise their hands for questions and comments. A third grader says that he has a direct connection to the book because he watches lots of videos of what the earth would be like without humans. A girl wants to talk about which animals would do well without people and which ones would not. Other students want to talk about which plants would spread and grow wild. All of them agree that the air and water would become cleaner without people. Over and over, I find students engaged and eager to talk about what the world will be like in the future.
In contrast, adults sometimes get stuck on the premise. How could that happen? How could the world exist without humans? Is this too scary an idea for children to think about? Is this topic too depressing? They often don’t realize that kids are already thinking and talking about these topics.
Many children have a strong sense of justice and a deep connection with animals. They are not as quick as adults to think we are the center of everything. They also know a lot about the earth and realize we are going to have to make substantial changes in order to continue living on this planet. In sharing this book with students, I am more and more confident that the solutions for addressing how we live on earth during these challenging times will come from them. Once more, it is young people who will lead the way, and they are eager to talk about it.