This year I signed up for a challenge to read more books about the environment (hosted by Gum Trees and Galaxies). I haven’t read too many yet this year, but I read these two in June and July and it made sense to write about them together. Both books are pretty impossible to “review” in the usual sense, because I can’t possibly criticize either author. Considering all that’s going on in the world, these two books provide a perspective on environmental activism that hopefully will interest many readers.
The first is The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Doug Abrams. This book is written as a dialogue between Jane and Doug, and while it’s very much about the environment, it’s also a broader look at the nature of hope, and how to maintain hope when times are difficult. Jane Goodall is one of the most inspiring people on the planet, and this book also provided a lot of insights into her career, including how she got started working with monkeys and what it was like to work in a field that’s so hostile to women.
Jane lays out four reasons for hope, tying these reasons specifically to environment and climate change but they apply more broadly. They are: human intellect, the power of young people, the resilience of nature, and the indomitable human spirit.
I strongly recommend the audiobook, because the book is already written as a series of interviews between the two, and the audiobook makes you feel like you’re sitting in a room with them (it will tell you something that I’m using their first names in this review). These interviews take place across the globe and by video during COVID. Jane’s calming voice (she notes people comment on her voice all the time) makes a very difficult subject easier to listen to, while Doug’s expresses the grief he was going through at the time due to his father’s illness and death. On the other hand, the print book is full of photos of Jane’s life. So both formats bring something different.
Jane emphasizes the dire situation we’re in, while also expressing hope that it can be turned around. Key to her thinking about hope is that small changes by many people make a difference. I was particularly inspired by the work of her foundation, which funds youth activism around the globe through her “Roots and Shoots” program. She also discusses how even the most disadvantaged youth can be empowered to act, which I think is so important (it often feels like activism is for the wealthy).
As I’ve been more and more disheartened by the current state of politics and climate, I found this book inspiring and motivating.
I had already planned to read Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, after seeing it described on Scones and Chaise Longues during last year’s Nonfiction November. This book ties together my interest in the environment and my interest in autism. It was also a perfect companion to Jane Goodall’s book, because McAnulty is exactly the sort of youth that Goodall is so excited about.
McAnulty began blogging in his teens, and as the attention to his blog grew, he published Diary in 2020. In it he chronicles one full year in Northern Ireland. Much of his diary is about his observations of nature, but he intersperses these observations with his own personal struggles and development — as a teenager, a blogger, and a budding activist. I found the personal elements of his story more compelling than the nature writing, but it’s a nice mix of both. I often listened to the book (narrated by the author) as I took my own daily walks and it was a nice reminder to be present and observe what’s around me, down to the smallest bug or ivy growing on a tree. I appreciated seeing Northern Ireland through his vivid descriptions.
There’s not a lot of action or dialogue in this book, it’s much more of a commentary by the author on his passion for nature and his anger about things like climate change, extinctions, overdevelopment, and just the general idiocy of many people. Anyone who works with youth will appreciate his insights about how adults treat younger people. For example, he writes about people who invite him and other youth to speak and then don’t even stick around to listen to them. (I bet Jane Goodall isn’t one of those people.)
This is a book you can listen to in small bits and pieces since there isn’t too much of a linear storyline. McAnulty, like Goodall, has a calming voice, so if you’re looking for a book to relax into, this might be a good one. It won’t be for everyone (in comparison, I think Goodall’s book can be appreciated by all) but it will appeal to those who are interested in nature writing and environmental activism, and it’s also a compelling memoir written by a teenager with autism.
Next on my environmental reading list is How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum (plus, it’s “Plastic Free July” this month).
Interested in similar books about nature and environment? I’d recommend Hope Jahren’s The Story of More, for a book that explains climate issues in a way that’s detailed but also accessible for non-scientists. You can also find a great list of environmental fiction and nonfiction here.
I love true stories about people who explore nature, so two I’d recommend here are The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (about a woman and her husband who lose their home and decide to walk a 630 mile coastal path) and Braving It by James Campbell (about a man who takes his teenage daughter across the wilds of Alaska). Into the Wild and Wild are two others but most people have heard of those.
Along those lines, do you have any recommendations for me?
I remember reading Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” as a teen and being extremely moved by it… it’s discouraging sometimes to think how long we have known about all the challenges related to our fraught relationship with the natural world and how little progress we seem to have made. You’ve inspired me to check out the Jane Goodall book–I could certainly use a little hope!
Yes, it’s very discouraging – we’ve known it all for such a long time and done so little! I was just thinking about a trip I took to Alaska 14 years ago, and then they were very worried about shrinking glaciers and warming waters. And of course it goes much farther back than that.
Great reviews, thank you. I read quite a lot of nature books but of course hadn’t grasped that challenge! I have the Diary on my radar, although I got a bit beaten down by my last “young activist” book, so it might have to wait a little while …
Thanks Liz, I’d love to hear any other recommendations for nature reading! I hadn’t thought about “young activist” books as a genre, I don’t think I’ve read any others.
I really like Stephen Rutt and Lev Parikian’s books, there are a few by each, you can always search on my blog (maybe I should have a Nature category!). I’m just thinking because there’s the McNulty, then I just read Bird Girl which was by a 20yo, and I have Greta Thunberg’s mum’s book as well, plus Malala and her dad’s book … seems enough for a genre!
Great choices and great reviews! Jane also has a podcast called the Hopecast it is worth checking out for ongoing inspiration. I also really enjoyed the insight that Dara gives into the experience of being nuro-diverse as much as the nature writing and the activism, I have recommended it to a few people for that alone.
Thanks Sharon, I will definitely check out that podcast. It’s so easy to feel hopeless these days. She’s such an inspiration!
I will definitely look for the audio version of the Goodall/Abrams book–appeals to me so much. I also am intrigued by the Diary of a Young Naturalist–seeing N Ireland through his eyes would definitely be interesting.
The book by Goodall sounds like a must read. As a huge advocate of hope, after reading I hope to be a little more versed in how to speak to others about it to spread the message!! Thanks for bringing these books to my attention!