Though World Water Day and Earth Day are in retrospect, Nancy Castaldo hopes you aren’t turning your attention away from the fate of the planet just yet. In her latest book When the world runs dry: the waters of the earth in crisispublished in January, it looks at global water security — or rather, the lack of it — and tackles infrastructure, pollution, fracking, and more.
Castaldo, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, has been interested in—and writing about—the natural world since she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was a student at Marymount College that she became interested in ecology. In her senior year, her interests converged: she was also president of the science club, editor of the literary journal, and an intern at Audubon Magazine. Since then, she has published more than two dozen books, written countless articles, worked as an environmental educator, and won a number of awards. She is also a certified National Geographic Educator.
In When the world runs dryAmid heartbreaking anecdotes from Flint, Michigan, and alarm bells about rising sea levels on Earth, Castaldo offers readers ages 10 to 18 not just possible solutions, but hope.
Your interest in nature and the planet started at a very young age, but when did you know you wanted to pursue this interest professionally?
Before I came to Marymount, I really thought about becoming a vet; I originally started my studies as a biology student with this thought. I realized early on that this wasn’t the path I wanted to take, but that I wanted to get more involved with ecology and animal behavior – and my ecology course at Marymount was instrumental in cementing this.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I’m definitely a research junkie. I love every aspect of it. It’s like a scavenger hunt. I can simply explore things that fascinate me in the research phase. So when I get the OK to write one of my books and I start that phase of research, whether it’s spending time in a library, digging up old books in an academic library, or traveling, that’s the part I really enjoy most. And of course, research puts you on a path. It gives you offshoots of things to write about and discoveries you didn’t know when you set out to research a topic.
Which research goal has influenced you the most so far?
There were so many for many different reasons. When the world runs dry required a lot of research in areas where people had serious water problems – many crises. One of them was a visit to Flint, Michigan and it was very, very difficult to see the environmental injustice that is occurring and to know in a very, very, very small way what these people are going through. It’s eye opening. It changed my perspective on communities and environmental justice, and I think that will stay with me forever.
I think that every time we travel outside of our own experience, it opens us to a deeper understanding of the world around us. When I was working on a book called The History of the Seeds, another young adult book that came out in 2016, I was able to travel to Russia and spend some time in St. Petersburg. And of course, now that I see the war news from Ukraine every day, I can’t get that out of my head. What I learned on this trip, which was very important for my future thinking, was that scientists have a different sense of borders, of national borders, than I think the rest of us do. Scientists don’t give up [the same]Walls, and maybe we can learn from them.
So there were things like these experiences, these research stories, that really kind of opened my eyes to the global climate, so to speak.
Most of her books fall into the young adult and middle school range. Why children? What attracted you to this audience?
Writing for children is a gift. Children remember the books they have read. You are impressionable at this age. They are also a challenge to write to them. You have to be really, really careful what you write for kids as it has to be accurate. You can’t put anything over them. They’re smart and they deserve books that tell them what’s going on out there. And then, with my books for children, I try not only to inform my readers, but to inspire them to take action. I want to strengthen them. I want to write for children to let them know they have a voice and I want them to know that their voice matters. I think that’s a different goal than writing for adults.
We leave the world to children, and we must give them the tools they need to move forward – to be competent, accomplished citizens. I love the kids fighting for the planet right now. I feel like they are our future and they need books to help them. I hope my books do that.
How do you manage to convey such complex, multi-layered facts in a child-friendly way? One of the things that struck me while reading When the world runs dry was that you didn’t “dumb down” the topic. How do you balance presenting the information in a way that that audience can understand, but also in a way that is challenging?
Yes, it is a challenge to do that. And sometimes I need a few passes to get it right and good editors to help me with it. I think kids are a little more savvy today than they were when I started writing. I remember writing a book called this in 2008 Keep our earth green, and this book was about all the different problems we face around the world. Back then I had to explain to the kids what climate change is and put it in very understandable terms. But since then, there’s so much out there that kids really understand.
What I’ve tried When the world runs dry was to give them real world examples of different water issues that they could really learn about and understand; fleshing out a bit of what you’ve already heard on the news. And of course, I know my readers will represent a wide age range, so I’m trying to balance that a bit and providing resources to help them get more information when they need it.
The book also does a really good job of humanizing the subject. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people negatively impacted by the water crisis. So how did you choose the themes you highlighted in the book?
I wanted to show the diversity of the people involved, to show the kids that it doesn’t really matter who or where you are, that there are water issues that can affect you no matter where you live. And to get a variety of places too. Unfortunately, there is so much in the news that it has been about picking and choosing the best examples of these various aspects. I also wanted them to see that it’s not just happening in the United States. We may not be experiencing the same magnitude of crisis here in the United States, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening in Australia or South Africa.
While I wasn’t able to travel to all of these areas, I traveled quite a bit for this book and I wanted my reader to join me in this exploration and the diversity of the climate, the diversity of the people, the diversity of the country and how each area and every group of people were affected. I really wish there were fewer places to choose from. It was about which ones you leave out more than which ones you use.
How did you stay hopeful as you worked on this book?
I believe we all need to have hope for our planet. How else could we go on? You cannot strive to make a difference if you have no hope. If you don’t believe there can be change, there will be no change. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t places in this book, as I wrote it, where it was just overwhelmingly sad to hear about people being displaced, people with health issues; The young woman to whom I dedicated the book passed away after an interview with her. [Jassmine McBride died in February 2019. Then just 30 years old, McBride was the 13th official victim of Flint’s outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, a respiratory condition caused by soil- and water-dwelling bacterium.] She still stays with me and I can’t help but be upset and sad about it.
It was a difficult book to write, but I think it’s always better to have the knowledge. One of the things I tried to do was get as many young people into the book as possible – there’s always room for more, of course – to let my young readers know that there are other teenagers out there doing amazing things do by raising their voices or inventing things [like Mari Copeny’s #WednesdaysForWater Twitter initiative or Gitanjali Rao’s handheld water-testing device]. Those are the things that give me hope. Those are the points in the story that take it to the next level, that give us the action, the energy we need to ignite that spark among us to do something.
Her next book hits shelves in August. Why is?
The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale is a story of ecosystem restoration. When I was in college in Marymount, I had a fabulous ecology teacher who taught us about this predator-prey relationship between wolves and mooses on Isle Royale, a fascinating little island in Lake Superior [part of the National Parks System]. It is the oldest predator-prey study in the world. The wolf population has dwindled so much that the elk population has skyrocketed, creating this huge imbalance in the island ecosystem that scientists decided to reintroduce wolves. This book addresses the predator-prey study, why wolves are being reintroduced, and how that reintroduction is proceeding.
It was just wonderful to go there and meet the people I studied in college who have been working on this project for so many years. It was mesmerizing: it was like my college courses were coming back at full speed.
buildings that breathe will appear in early November. And it’s a young adult book about green infrastructure, urban greening, greening of parks, and it mainly focuses on the vertical forest called Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy. My research for this consisted of spending a week at a United Nations conference in Italy on urban forestry. It’s fascinating to be able to build buildings that actually help the environment – that can change the look of our cities in the future. So this will be out in early November.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers?
One of the things I hope for the book is that my readers will also discover ways of dealing with adversity. I think that’s very important at all times, but right now. We cannot get through life without such experiences. It may not be a water issue, but it may be another issue. I hope my books provide tools to empower my readers and help them become active citizens of our world.
I hope that the book will empower them, guide them, entertain them, but also give them a way to develop their empathy.