Sunday, December 11, 2011

Energy Island

One of the things I like best about being on the Nonfiction Picture Books panel is the sheer diversity of books we've read.  I've read about subjects like safety for children, howler monkeys and prehistoric life.  Many of these are books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, but I have learned about so many things through these books.  This definitely includes Energy Island.

Energy Island is a small island off the coast of Denmark, which is more properly named Samsø Island.  The islanders had always gotten their energy sources from the mainland - electricity through underwater cables, oil by tanker across the ocean.  I've lived on an island, and although Drummond doesn't mention it here, I know that relying on energy sources being brought to the island can be inconsistent and expensive.  So it should have been a great thing when Samsø Island was chosen as the first Danish community to become energy independent.  The plan was to harness the ever-present wind and use it to create renewable energy.
  Drummond uses a young girl as the narrator of the story.  It is a strong narrative choice because she is relatable to other children.  She also helps bring a younger focus to a story which is populated with the adults of the community.  He uses two types of text to bring Samsø to life.  There is the overarching narrative, which the young girl carries.  This choice brings the information to life, and helps kids get why this is such a unique project.  The narrative also helps a project which is very far away seem more universal.  After all, we all waste energy in various ways and many people don't realize or care about renewable energy sources.  Then there are sidebars with more technical information on various environmental topics that tie in with the narrative.  These sidebars are clearly not part of the story - they are colored green, contrasting with the colors of the illustration, and have a different voice to them.

This book isn't just about energy and the island of Samsø, though.  One of the things that I think this book does best is show the way the community works to build consensus.  At the beginning of the project, all of the adults have reasons why they can't move towards energy independence or don't want to change their ways.  As one or two families agree to try it, then the winds begin to pick up speed, so to speak.  Drummond recounts a storm when everyone on the island loses power, except for the couple of islanders who have wind turbines.  Slowly, people begin to open their minds and experiment with alternative forms of energy.  I think this is a great idea for children to observe - that adults can be stubborn about change, and that their ideas aren't always right.  And it's valuable to see that the leader of the project, a teacher named Søren Hermansen, doesn't give up when the community doesn't want to change.  He keeps working at it and momentum begins to build slowly but surely.

One of the other interesting things about this book is Drummond's illustrative choices.  There is a huge diversity of illustration sizes in this book, and this adds energy (!) to the book.  Many pages have horizontal panel illustrations interspersed with lines of text.  There are also full-page illustrations, spot illustrations and vertical panels.  It keeps your eye moving across the page.  The variety of sizes also allows Drummond to show a lot of information without it becoming overwhelming.

There are a few problematic items in this book for me.  They are minor, but worth discussing.  I am really looking at back matter for the nonfiction titles I read this fall, and this book only has a single website as reference.  When I went to look at the website, I found that the link no longer works.  This is a real problem in a book that was just published this year.  And the concept of an island that is totally energy-independent is so interesting that I can't understand why there aren't more connections for interested young readers.

Drummond does include an author's note with a New Yorker article cited.  But an article in the New Yorker isn't appropriate for most children, so it is only helpful as his own starting point.  Drummond also notes in his author's note that he has compressed events to fit it all in the timeline he had set up.  I appreciate that he has brought this to light so that we are aware that his narrative isn't totally true to life.  One last criticism is that the book gives no specific dates.  Everything takes place "a few years ago"  or things take "several years".  While I understand that exact dates might not have fit into his narrative style, it gives you an unmoored feeling - does it take place in the 90's? the 70's?  Readers have no idea.  This book may have benefited from an extra informational page on Samsø or perhaps a sidebar with additional information.

All in all, though, this book gave me a look at a place I had no idea existed.  Energy Island is fascinating, and it's a great story to inspire readers to change their ways.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World.  Allan Drummond.  Frances Foster Books: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

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