Among many other things, 2020 was a year that saw great strides in youth empowerment. Protests were attended en masse by passionate young adults, voting registration drives allowed those who weren’t 18 yet to be involved in one of the most divisive elections in history and pushes toward action against climate change were led by young activists like Greta Thunberg.
A recent book by award-winning young adult/children’s author Austin Aslan and Emmy-nominated environmental activist Philippe Cousteau imagines how different sustainability work might look like if it wasn’t humans trying to right their wrongs, but rather the animals themselves taking things into their own paws before the situation becomes too dire.
“The Endangereds” is the first in a new series published by HarperCollins.
“It all started with a conversation around an idea with HarperCollins in response to the crisis that we face around endangered species,” Cousteau said. “I’m 40 years old and I have a little daughter and in my lifetime we have lost half the world’s biodiversity.
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“The initial impetus for all of this was, ‘How can we tell this story in an exciting way for young people and give them an opportunity to explore the issue in a fictional setting?’”
Cousteau has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Philippe and Jacques Cousteau, to educate about environmental and conservation issues though public speaking, work with his nonprofit EarthEcho International and as host of TV shows like “Xploration Awesome Planet.” Similarly motivated, Aslan’s debut novel, “The Islands at the End of the World,” was named a Best Book of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews and ranked by The Guardian as a top-10 climate fiction read. As a Flagstaff resident, he has served as a councilmember with Flagstaff City Council, following a platform largely focused on sustainability and climate change mitigation.
“I’ll never forget that moment I was approached to make this concept a reality. It just resonated with me and my mind was racing with ideas,” Aslan said, adding he was floored to be collaborating with Cousteau.
The two worked closely to build a story that’s entertaining and also factually accurate to the plight of the species depicted. There’s a polar bear with super strength, an expert engineer pangolin, a sarcastic narwhal and an orangutan who isn’t afraid to dream big. Together, this unlikely group of superheroes are determined to do whatever it takes to save all the endangered species of the world.
“Rappelling into an underground cavern to save the day? No problem. Looping video footage to sneak through buildings unnoticed? Got it covered. Opening a doorknob? Okay, pretty hard without thumbs. But don’t worry. No matter what it takes, the Endangereds will get the job done,” a summary of the book reads.
“For me, it was really something that is a continuation of all the work that I do that’s focused on education and [asks], ‘How do we empower young people to take actions on these issues?’” Cousteau said.
Partnering with the World Wildlife Fund, “The Endangereds” includes resources and more information on how to get involved in helping combat the real-life environment crisis at the back of the book. Much of the youth audience Cousteau has worked with through EarthEcho International is already familiar with the struggles of the world and has been stepping up to make a difference wherever they can.
“We’re seeing engagement and one of the key interests is environmental issues,” Cousteau said. “The youth leaders that we work with all over the world are passing laws as middle schoolers, they’re working on projects that are galvanizing and organizing their community members around ocean conservation. They’re doing really incredible things.”
“Here in Flagstaff our council has recently passed a climate emergency resolution, coupled with our earlier unanimous decision for the city’s Climate Action and Adaption Plan,” Aslan added. “The youth voice and the students and young people that were involved in that process were very loudly heard and very much seen—I would dare say they were an essential element to the popularity of these two bits of policy and essential to their passage.”
The book provides big issues in a digestible format, ideal for both assigned reading and for-fun reading.
“I was just recently approached by an educator who’s starting an educator book club related to wildlife topics and wants touse ‘The Endangereds’ as its first book,” Aslan said. “It’s just really satisfying to be able to be a part of that conversation and to be a catalyst for this new generation of environmental activists.”
“We’re trying to channel that anxiety in a positive and hopeful direction,” Cousteau said.