October 22, 2020


You Can Change the World: The Kids’ Guide to a Better Planet. By Lucy Bell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     All too often, the descriptive is the enemy of the prescriptive: it is comparatively easy to point out where things are wrong and exceedingly difficult to say how to make them better. So Lucy Bell’s You Can Change the World is welcome, since most of its focus is on what can be done: there are plenty of descriptions of troubles of all sorts, but what Bell does most of the time, and what she does best, is to tell young readers how they can contribute to solving those problems. The book is divided into eight sections called “Plastic,” “Ethical and Environmentally Friendly Clothing,” “Waste,” “Food,” “Gardening and the Outdoors,” “Energy, Electricity, and Waste,” “Animal Activism,” and “An Act of Kindness.” Within each section, Bell lays out the area of concern, gives specific suggestions on what readers can do to address the issue, and gives examples of young people (mostly from Australia, where the author lives and where the book was first published) who are already, in their own way, doing more than their share to help.

     Importantly, Bell explains right at the start that “changing the world won’t happen in a day, and you don’t have to do everything at once. It’s all about making a few changes at a time.” This is crucial in a world of instantaneous communication, instantaneous condemnation, and demands by people of all ages (many of them cynically self-serving politicians) that such-and-such a concern be addressed instantaneously and corrected 100% by tomorrow. Bell’s comment that “every day we can do something to help the fight” is far more mature and intelligent than much of what young readers are exposed to online and through media in general, and if they can only internalize it, they will accomplish much more than if they bemoan the slow pace of massive change.

     To reuse and repurpose items that would usually be thrown away, for example, Bell suggests using glass jars to organize small items or make decorations by filling the jars with pebbles or shells; and she says egg cartons can be used to sprout seedlings or sort jewelry. When packing a lunch, she recommends eating fruits and vegetables that do not have to be packed in anything besides their own skins, then bringing home the peels for composting; and she says to buy bread from a bakery and bring your own bag to carry it home (although this is one of many well-meaning suggestions that imply the economic ability to purchase costlier items). To control garden pests without using chemical insecticides, she explains how to make soap spray and garlic spray – two natural pest-control methods that are often (although not always) effective. She also presents the intriguing idea of “companion planting,” which means putting plants near each other so they can help each other control bugs – for instance, planting garlic, chives or spring onions near flowers.

     Some of Bell’s suggestions are straightforward, easy to implement, and have intriguing bonus ideas. For example, she talks about saving water by taking shorter showers – while also putting a bucket in the shower, so some of the used water is collected and can be used to water plants. And in the “An Act of Kindness” section, she says to smile at people, listen before responding, and thank people who do something for you – and also to do a chore without being asked and without telling anyone. Other concepts are considerably more complicated – specifically, the ones implemented by the young people she profiles, who can be role models for readers if the readers are able to adapt their thinking and success to their own personal situations. For example, Josh Murray, from Australia, started an egg-selling business at age nine and by age 18 was running Josh’s Rainbow Eggs, producing 55,000 eggs a week from pasture-raised chickens. And nine-year-old “Ruby the Climate Kid,” also from Australia, was inspired by living next to a national park to begin doing a series of climate-friendly things, including making recyclable fabric bags and growing fruit trees from seeds.

     There are occasional missteps in You Can Change the World. At one point Bell says that “every single known species of turtle has been found with plastic in or around its body,” but that actually applies to sea turtles, not all species. Elsewhere, Bell suggests “using bar shampoo instead of shampoo in plastic bottles” and tells readers they “can get bar shampoo from cosmetic stores like Lush,” which happens to be a very expensive place to shop – not a reasonable alternative for many people (although Bell does note that it is also possible to look for bar shampoo online). But even if some elements of Bell’s book misfire, most of them do not, and her focus on what young people can actually do, day in and day out, to improve life on our shared planet, places You Can Change the World several steps above the more-typical rants and complaints that are so common in discussions of resource allocation and attention to issues affecting everyone on Earth. The solid simplicity of Bell is far more engaging than the usual agenda-driven drivel on similar topics. As she says, and as will be quite clear to young readers and the adults in their families, “A cleaner world is a nicer world, and a safer place for plants and animals.” For humans, too.

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