Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)
As Earth’s changing climate becomes an ever-increasing concern, readers are turning to Cli-Fi as a way to engage their imaginations and deal with their fears in the safety of their present environment. I’m seeing a growing number of Cli-Fi books for “young adults,” no doubt because teens also love the drama inducing increased heartbeat that comes with these tales. In addition, the teens in these stories demonstrate courage, tenacity, compassion, imagination, and foresight, often far beyond the adults they encounter. So, although the setting may be upsetting, the reader, empathizing with the main character, finishes the last page feeling hopeful, resolute, and inspired. It is for this reason that I have begun a list of Cli-Fi books that I’ve read, that are written for 12-18-year-olds. I invite teachers and students to add suggestions, for we know that good literature can touch the heart and mind in a way that allows insight beyond one’s immediate experiences.
Student writers will also see the benefit of perusing the books listed below, using them as mentor texts. They will realize research is needed to understand the causes and effects of climate change in order to build an incredible storyline that sounds credible. And by analyzing the writing techniques used to deliver a message of possible dire consequences of a changing climate, students will deepen their understanding of effective, purposeful communication.
Do make sure to pre-read any book you plan to use with your class to ensure the content and language are appropriate for your students.
Guiding Questions to help readers become writers:
- How does the author hook the reader at the beginning of the story?
Characters, setting, plot
- How does the main character feel at the beginning of the story? How does s/he feel at the end? What caused the change?
- Thinking about the setting, is the focus large or small? Whole planet? Country? Town? Does the setting change by the end? Do the characters adapt to the setting? How does the setting drive the plot and affect the characters? How does the author build suspense and keep the reader engaged?
- Explain how the climax is the turning point of the story. How does the writer unpack this part of the story for maximum effect?
- What would a flow chart, based on the causes and effects in this story, look like?
- What happens in the plot after the climax? How does the author resolve the main issue of the story? What is left unresolved? How does the author keep the story from ending too quickly after conflict-resolution in the climax? How have the characters changed by the end? Is it a satisfying ending? Why/Why not?
- What science facts are used to create the problem in this story?
- At what point does the author go beyond factual science information into science fiction? Does it seem credible to the reader? What techniques does the writer employ to keep the reader “buying in” to the storyline?
- What similarities are there between the way people responded to the Covid pandemic in real life and the way people respond to the climate disaster in the story?
- What writing techniques does the author use to encourage you to empathize with a main character?
- Did you find this to be a compelling story? Was it hard to stop reading it? Did it call to you when you weren’t reading? How did the author write a “page turner”?
- What writing techniques from this story will you use when writing your own Cli-Fi story?
Apply it to your own life
- Do the people in the story respond to their circumstance in a realistic way? Would you respond in the same way if you were in this situation? Why/Why not?
- Considering the situation and the way the main character responds, what could you learn from this fictional story? What are the subtle lessons for the reader?
Literary elements and devices to consider:
|Abrupt mood shift|
Antagonists vs. protagonists
Conflict (implicit and explicit)
Dialogue (internal and external)
|Hooking the reader|
Internal and external conflict
Physical and emotional reactions
Setting that impacts plot
Tone of voice
Transitions: setting and time
Unpacking a scene
Recommendations and reviews:
Here are my Cli-Fi recommendations and reviews, with suggestions you might find helpful. You can help other teachers by leaving a comment below. What is your opinion of this book? Feel free to write a review for others (or ask your students to write reviews). Do you have another Cli-Fi book that you think I should read and include here? I would love to hear from you.
Middle School through High School (ages 12 – 18)
The Big Melt by Ned Tillman, shows us a “typical American town” a few years into the future. The main characters, a teen boy and girl (who begin as friends and end up falling in love), show us how life is changing rapidly as the area reaches a climate tipping point and begins experiencing prolonged excessive heat – melting streets, killing plants, drying up sources of water, creating hurricane-force winds. The teens come to understand that even if they can’t fix all problems, they can make a difference in people’s lives, and that moving forward with purpose is empowering.
Discussion questions: What are some results of a warming climate, as presented in the book, that you hadn’t thought about before? Realistic? Does the author treat politicians fairly/realistically? What are the implications in the real world? Did it surprise you that the main characters weren’t able to “solve the problem” (stop climate change) at the end of the story? Realistic ending? What are your take-aways from this story?
- “This historic warming trend was affecting everything. It felt to him like life on Earth was becoming unbearable just as he was getting ready to graduate.”
- “Your generation is facing a big challenge. It’ll take people like you to fix it. Good luck.”
- “Aren’t the impacts of The Warming scary enough to get us to work together?”
Eye of the Storm by Kate Messner, is told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old girl, about 30 years in the future, who is coming to live with her father and stepmother in Oklahoma for the summer. Climate change has caused tornadoes to become more frequent and more severe, especially in this part of the world. She, and of course a cute boy, work together to uncover the nefarious work of scientists who have developed a way, with the help of some Russians, to control tornadoes, while the teens themselves work towards becoming ethical scientists.
Discussion questions: How is life inside Placid Meadows different from life outside? Why? How would you compare the living situations in this story with societal norms in the real world today? How do you think societies in the real world will be affected as climate change continues to cause more severe weather events? Who are the good guys and bad guys in this story? Why? Will kids get the wrong idea about scientists from reading this book? Do you know any scientists? How do they compare with the ones in this book? Is Eye of Tomorrow a good idea? Why/Why not? Does such a school exist in real life? Would you be interested in attending such a school?
Caution: scientists with dubious ethics; implied concern over a possible extra-marital affair.
- “It’s like Florida when the hurricanes started getting bigger; no one lives here anymore unless they’re too attached to family farms or they can’t afford to leave.”
- “Nobody rides bikes anymore at home. The storms churn up so fast, there’s not a kid in our neighborhood who’s allowed to ride more than halfway down the block, so why bother?”
- “‘…I feel like I’m out of ideas. That’s why I was kind of hoping we could work together.'”
High School (ages 14 – 18)
Stormteller by David Thorpe, follows two boys from very different economic backgrounds as they try to survive in a world of severe flooding, all the while wooing the same girl. The story, set in Wales a decade into the future, mixes Celtic lore into a future with climate change causing horrific rainstorms and ocean flooding from sea level rise. There’s a strong fantasy element here as the author pulls from mythical storytelling. Yet, it will spur interesting discussions about fate and controlling our own destinies.
Discussion questions: Can we escape our apparent fate? Can there be climate justice when there is such disparity between the haves and have nots today? What fable would you write to encourage people to reduce human emissions to slow down climate change and lessen its future effects?
Caution: foul language; death; implied sex between teenage boy and girl; pregnant teen.
- “‘[Fables]…. are the stories that humans tell, which motivate and inspire them. They use us as we might use a staff to walk, or a spear to kill – as a tool, or for sport and entertainment.'”
- “We had to learn from nature in order to repair the damage humanity had done to it.”
- “If he had a mission then he didn’t have to think about anything else.”
Breathe by Sarah Crossan, shows us a dystopian world through the eyes of three teens, two girls and a boy. These main characters grapple with multiple moral dilemmas on Planet Earth, which now has limited reserves of breathable oxygen. Polluted air, soil, and water have killed so many plants that not enough oxygen is being produced for people to live outside a carefully monitored dome with manufactured oxygen. The teens become aware of the inequalities that exist in this controlled society and begin to feel manipulated rather than protected, leading them to search for a better and more equitable world. And, yes of course, the boy and one of the girls fall in love.
Discussion questions: How does life inside the pod compare with life outside? Why? As resources on our planet become more scarce (due to climate change, misuse of natural resources, and over population), how will people respond? Who will be the winners and the losers? How would societies regulate oxygen? Should some get more than others? Where does oxygen come from? How do we get more?
Caution: violence; death; implied fear of rape.
- “But that’s how things usually go. We always think we have time. We didn’t. Within years the oxygen level in the atmosphere plummeted to four percent.”
- “This isn’t the version we get at school. There we’re told it was China’s fault – all those factories. It was India’s fault – all those babies. It was America’s fault – all those shoppers.”
- “We are not looking for the right answer. We are looking for plausible arguments. Strength of reasoning. We are looking to build leaders who have the logic and fortitude to run the pod.”
Resist by Sarah Crossan, is the sequel to Breathe. If your students have read Breathe in class, I bet they’ll be motivated enough to read Resist on their own. Perhaps, with a little encouragement, some might even form their own informal book club! The three teens from the Breathe novel are joined by another boy to use their cunning, tenacity, and sense of justice to survive and help others in this dystopian world caused by climate change. As refugees, they must learn new norms in order to survive while remembering who they are and what they hold dear. It’s a lot of work to clean up the mess created by adults, but teens have the gumption (and energy!) to do it.
Discussion questions: What parallels do you see between the experiences of the main characters as refugees, and those of real life refugees as they migrate to another country? As climates around the world become more unbalanced, making some areas uninhabitable, where will the people go? How do you think these climate refugees will be treated by the current residents? How can countries slow down climate change, while also adapting to inevitable changes, to reduce the negative effects of massive refugee migration? How do people react when they feel they have nothing else to lose?
Caution: violence; death; implied fear of rape; implied sex between teenage boy and girl.
- “Growing trees wasn’t some hobby; it was the key to freedom – to survival.”
- “…the pod’s been pretty quiet since everyone was anesthetized. No one’s interested in challenging the Ministry now – not when consciousness depends on compliance.”
- “They need my help…”
Dust Lands: Blood Red Road by Moira Young, is the first book of the trilogy. The setting, a dystopian future ravaged by years of drought, drives the plot. Written from the perspective of a teenage girl, we follow her on a dangerous search to rescue her kidnapped brother, while trying to protect her younger sister. She is helped by a group of teen girls, as well as a handsome boy (who, you won’t be surprised to learn, falls in love with her). It’s a long, hot, treacherous quest filled with unsavory characters at every turn, but little by little, through experiences she would have preferred not to have had, she comes to realize she is stronger than she ever realized. She has become a steely survivor, adapting to a world she cannot change.
Discussion questions: What themes around family bonds were written into the plot of this story? Why do those in charge encourage the populace to take drugs? How does the setting drive the plot? What has caused the years of drought, as well as the severe downpours? How do the characters change during the story? What remains constant? Why?
Caution: violence; death; foul language; teens drinking alcohol; drug use; sexual innuendo.
- “… whatever we do, however hard we try, it jest ain’t enough. Not without rain. We bin watchin the land die, bit by bit.”
- “You can see where there was buildins, way back when. Now they’re nuthin but bumps an grass-covered hills. They fell down long ago, bit by bit, an ever since then the earth, the plants an the winds, they bin quietly movin an shiftin to cover what’s left. To hide it away. Bury the past.”
- “‘Hey,’ he says, …’Get on up here an lead the way.’ So I do.”
More Cli-Fi information: