Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Written By: Zhao Gu Gammage
“Can you recommend a good children’s book about STEM?” Janice Lao-Noche, esteemed environmental scientist, was asked in an interview. She could not answer the question. After going home that day, Lao-Noche did not wallow in disappointment; instead, she asked her nine-year-old daughter, Esther, what kind of STEM book would interest her. Esther immediately began developing characters and a storyline based on her then-current obsession: narwhals. She created a story about a narwhal and a whale losing their home, including plot twists and imaginative characters when she presented the first draft to her mother. In Esther’s draft, Lao-Noche heard her daughter’s youthful and fearless voice. “As adults, we tend to censor ourselves,” says Lao Noche. “But for Esther, nothing was crazy.”
The book, titled “Sparky and Benny’s Big Home Mystery,” is, at its core, about friendship. Sparky and Benny, a whale and a narwhal, navigate the Arctic ocean in search of what is destroying their home. Using her favorite animal, Esther writes about climate change in a sympathetic way from the sea animals’ perspectives. Lao-Noche worked to take her daughter’s storyline and incorporate facts about climate change. She eventually created a curriculum guide, which includes lesson plans, videos, and online activities, to aid educators working with children in dissecting the book and understanding the effects of climate change.
The adventure of Sparky and Benny breaks from the stereotypical climate change narrative that Lao-Noche grew up with. Instead of focusing on polar bears or pandas, incorporating a narwhal brings a fresh perspective. Sparky and Benny explore the causes behind their home’s destruction and later discover how they can save it, all while guiding the reader through an exciting storyline. Following the two main characters, readers have the opportunity to learn about humans’ environmental impact from the view of the narwhals, and this change in perspective can help young readers understand what they can do about climate change because it allows them to empathize with the animals directly impacted.
Having studied climate change for over 20 years, Lao-Noche is an expert on the topic. She incorporated her knowledge into the book by sharing information on the effects of whaling, water pollution, and rising sea levels. Lao-Noche’s journey to becoming an expert, however, did not come easily. Throughout her 20-year career, she has faced discrimination because of her race, age, and gender. Discrimination forced Lao-Noche to rethink how she approached her work. Being told she didn’t fit a certain stereotype forced her to not only work harder to prove the validity of her work, but also to disprove preconceived notions about women in science. Now, Lao-Noche has shifted her outlook on people’s expressions of doubt—instead of becoming defensive, she “turn[s] these questions into opportunities to break down stereotypes.” Her challenges have taught her to change her approach to explaining her ideas. When she began to write “Sparky and Benny’s Big Home Mystery,” Lao-Noche knew she had to take an unconventional approach to presenting climate change. Rather than using data and graphs, she decided to stay true to Esther’s vision of the story. She included her daughter’s emotions and plot twists, knowing that facts alone are sometimes not enough to change people’s minds.
The process of translating their ideas into a book ready for publishing took two years. The writing process was cathartic for Lao-Noche, since it allowed her to explain her fears about climate change to her daughter in an engaging, age-appropriate manner. For Esther, writing the book motivated her to rethink how she expresses her ideas. Plot and character development were a welcome challenge for the nine-year-old. Now eleven, Esther reflects on the arduous process as a whole: “I feel very proud because most kids don’t write books.” Both Lao-Noche and Esther found it to be a great bonding experience and a reason to collaborate on something engaging. The mother-daughter duo’s bond has grown and continues to grow along with the book’s journey.
After the book was published last November, Lao-Noche noticed that kids Esther’s age were interested in the book. She realized part of the reason many of Esther’s classmates loved the book was that it featured their favorite animal, narwhals. Lao-Noche notes how the book uses “an animal that has already captured the hearts of Esther’s generation.” Esther’s story evoked a sense of sadness in her classmates, successfully humanizing climate change. The children no longer thought of climate change as an abstract concept, but rather as something tangible, like an animal losing its home. They viewed rising sea levels not as some arbitrary number, but as something that destroys ecosystems. In seeing the effects of human actions, the children began to understand what is at stake.
Lao-Noche and her daughter hope to introduce this story to a new generation of kids to redefine the conversation around climate change and teach STEM concepts. By integrating pathos into the book, the pair allows children to form emotional connections to the topic. Lao-Noche exuberantly states, “This book really brings STEM to life.”
Lao-Noche’s next book, “Penguins Can Fly…right?” is anticipated to be released this summer and is written with her son, Isaac. This book, which is written as a poem, will follow penguins as they explore perseverance and the possibilities in STEM.