Leisa Stewart-Sharpe was gazing out at the twinkling Coral Sea one Australian winter, marvelling – as she has throughout her life – at the incredible marine ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef. The nesting marine turtles, the migrating humpback whales and the multitude of sharks. She then watched as a man on a small boat checked a trap and swiftly pulled out a majestic tiger shark. It had drowned.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” she remembers. “Killing sharks so we could swim at the beach seemed as ludicrous to me as shooting lions so we could picnic on Africa’s Serengeti grasslands. There are lots of creatures with big teeth, venom and stings that end up being misunderstood – we kill over 100 million sharks a year. Now who’s the monster?”
Stewart-Sharpe, who last year published a companion book to the landmark BBC Earth series Blue Planet II, was determined to do something rather than simply be heartbroken by “the terrible things happening in nature".
She started talking to scientists, explorers, activists, inventors, conservationists and, perhaps most importantly, young people, who work to protect our planet and give a voice to nature. She called these people Earth shakers, and their stories are beautifully depicted in her inspiring new book What a Wonderful World.
Taking its cue from the remarkable success of Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara’s graphic-led Little People, Big Dreams biography series for young people, Lydia Hill’s illustrations are a memorable accompaniment to Stewart-Sharpe’s pen portraits.
Some of the Earth shakers will be familiar from history, such as Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai, who planted 50 million trees across Africa and started the Green Belt Movement. Or John Muir, known as the father of US National Parks. You’d expect Greta Thunberg to feature, and she rightly does in a fascinating section entitled Climate Strike Kids.
But there are also plenty of people – and young people at that – working for the planet out of the gaze of the public eye who Stewart-Sharpe spoke to as she embraced the remarkable network of Earth shakers.
“They are working magic, in my view, and their stories are the most fascinating,” says Stewart-Sharpe. “They are clever, caring and capable of incredible things. Someone like Sarah-Louise Adams saving the rare mountain chicken frog after a volcanic eruption in Montserrat, I just think she can get children thinking ’that’s someone I could grow up to be like’.
The writer hopes, through the book, to send a message to children that "they’re not too small or unimportant".
"Every choice we make – from turning on a light to flushing a toilet, from what we eat to how we travel – has an environmental cost but also, within it, possibility for action and change. We can all make a difference.”
The book's title, What a Wonderful World, was chosen with careful intent. As Stewart-Sharpe puts it, there are people smiling on the cover, instead of environmental devastation, with the title designed to provide a positive affirmation of our planet’s capability for good.
In that sense, it shares the same ethos as Terra - The Sustainability Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Rather than lecture people about their consumption habits, it makes them marvel at the incredible diversity of the natural world and makes preserving and enhancing that world in any small way seem like the most obvious thing to do.
“There’s the famous line from David Attenborough where he says ‘no one will protect what they don’t care about, no one will care about what they’ve never experienced’,” says Stewart-Sharpe.
“That was a guiding principle for this book, in that I wanted kids to be able to go to the Serengeti, the Himalayas, come face to face with wild animals, without leaving home. I wanted their sense of wonder about this world to bubble up into something they want to stand up for and protect.”
Stewart-Sharpe also caught up with conservation explorer Will Steger after he’d returned home from the North Pole. His adventures were exciting to listen to, but what he told Stewart-Sharpe about the shifting arctic biome, how polar bears were swimming for hours in ice-free water and just disappearing, was sobering stuff.
She believes there’s a growing eco anxiety among children who understand what’s happening to the planet and what this means for their futures unless change happens.
What a Wonderful World is the antidote to those feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. When you read the stories of Melati and Isabel Wijsen, children who set up Bye Bye Plastic Bags in Bali and got them banned in 2019, or Indian student Poorva Shrivastava, who used science to give her community clean water and tackle waste, it’s impossible not to be moved.
“The world is wonderful, it really is,” says Stewart-Sharpe. “And it’s not too late – incredible people are doing things to stand up for nature. In this book they are like superheroes, saving the planet.
“But there are lots of little things that no matter how big or small, loud or quiet you are, you can do as well. I hope this book shows that you don’t have to feel helpless at all. Quite the opposite. These Earth shakers are just like you.”