Joanna Measer Kanow’s debut novel, EcoQueen was released on Earth Day, 2021. Focusing on the adventures of Kora, a biracial teenage girl who is adopted in the US, the novel focuses on the dangers and repercussions of climate change while also providing hope. I interviewed Joanna on her novel, her career as an environmental activist, the dangers and solutions of climate change, and her non-profit, Seas of Trees, which will receive the proceeds for the sale of the novel.
Rashmila Maiti: Where do you get your ideas?
Joanna Measer Kanow: The idea was born from my mother-in-law who was drawing pictures with her grandson. He was drawing superheroes and asked why there weren’t any female superheroes. She answered, “Well let’s make one up and have it for the environment.” And it makes sense to me too, because it’s mother earth that we need to defend. However, my mother-in-law is not much of a writer and she passed this idea to me. I ran with the idea that idea evolved and morphed into this story that I worked on for eight years. My goal is that this book can become recommended reading for schools across the country and the globe, where students can learn about the science of climate change through fantasy and adventure. The readers can also learn about the urgency of the problem. Hopefully, it will make them want to get involved, take action, and care because we are really at the point where their generation can feel the devastating impacts of climate change, or make the change we need to turn it around.
RM: How has your 20-year career in sustainability and the environment moved you to write EcoQueen?
JMK: In my career as an environmentalist and activist, I have worked with students before in outdoor education where students from the city came out to beautiful and pristine nature. For me, it was a way that would make the student care and make a difference in their decisions, actions, and learning where their energy came from or their garbage goes to, and take that knowledge back to the city. Then, I became a classroom teacher for five years, thinking that I would have more impact on students that way. Next, I went into green building. I worked there for seven years and I had a green building design showroom where I was selling sustainable, non-toxic, reclaimed building materials, and things made from recycled material for building houses. Lastly, I was involved in a carbon-neutral coalition non-profit organization where I tried to do policy, and get solar energy for schools and different composting projects.
You know it all seems to take so long when I know that the climate crisis is getting worse. I have been hearing for the last twenty years that if we don’t do something and turn it around now, then we are going to reach the point of no return. Extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes, wildfires are happening now. So once this book is in the hands of kids, hopefully, they can do something that will make a quick difference, some changes, or at least, fire up students to take action as we are in a very critical time. I do have hope right now that we are going to make the right decisions to go the other way. That’s why this book is such good timing because it can be a part of the change. The warnings have been out for a long time but not many people have cared enough. That’s how humans are until it’s affecting our own lives, personally; then, you want to do something. I am hoping that through the adventures of Eco Queen, where she goes to places of droughts, fires, oil spills, power plants, the students can see that these places can be close to their lives and they can have similar experiences to her travels.
RM: Why there are so few female superheroes in popular culture?
JMK: Our culture was not ready for it. But now, we have all these great female leaders. We are starting to become accustomed to that leadership and power. Superpower in women is possible, doable, and needed. It’s a new type of energy/ mentality in leading, instead of how it has been. Greta Thunberg has been very inspirational in writing this book. And now Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, Jacinda Ardern, all these female leaders are really showing that they can be in leadership and power positions while being compassionate and nurturing. I think we are ready as a culture, with opening our eyes to the possibility of women involved to make a change. That’s why I chose a female superhero. I didn’t want Eco Queen to be sexy or focus on how she looks, or what she wore, or her body type. I wanted to break those stereotypes and show that she is just an average girl who has a passion to do something and she steps into it. I consciously wanted to avoid writing about a superhero that would remind people of some other character or hero.
RM: Why, in your opinion, are there so few superheroes saving the planet from climate change, rising sea levels, and corporate greed? The only character I can think of is the cartoon character, Captain Planet.
JMK: Climate, at least in America, got politicized, divided, and became a very touchy thing. So a lot of people thought that when you talked about climate, you were getting political and starting to take sides, which just put it back by some many years. With this last leadership of dividing us even more, people were scared to touch climate change, based on what they might be judged for if they were into this type of superhero or novel. I hope that I can get this book into the hands of kids of any political background and still show them the science and the reality of what is going on. And not make it a political dividing thing. We are all in this together that anyone will realize when their family or house or community is affected first-hand by a fire or a flood. It doesn’t matter what political side you are on; this is what is happening to the environment and will be affecting you. I am hoping that we are getting beyond the two sides of the climate debate. For so many years, people said that it wasn’t real or happening. We are getting more awake to the reality in front of us.
RM: Are your characters based on real people?
JMK: Some are based on real people that I know and all are parts of my life, people that I have met before. As my kids are reading the book, they kind of know what is coming from real life. Kora’s teacher is based on one of my child’s karate teachers. The teachers in Kora’s school are based on my older teachers. Kora is entirely fiction, and I did bring a lot of my experiences to help tell the story. Although my mother-in-law inspired the character of Eco Queen, I wanted her to be a young high school teenager so other kids could relate.
RM: I enjoyed Kora’s quest for her identity as a biracial female superhero. What inspired you to create her as a biracial character?
JMK: I feel that as we are getting so many great female biracial or multiethnic leaders from different fields in the mainstream, I did not want Kora to be a white kid. As we see younger kids getting inspired by the Kamalas, Michelles, Oprahs, they feel that this is accessible and the kids can also be leaders. I wanted to include that and say that anyone of any color can stand up for what they believe in, get out, and do their work to change the world. I also think that we are at the point in our culture that we are more open and accepting with the Black Lives Matter movement. We are getting more exposed to the cracks in the system. We don’t need to put any type of person down, based on their sex or color of skin. Anyone has the potential to make a change if they want to take that on. I want kids to relate to Eco Queen, kids of various cultures and backgrounds so that this book can resonate with them.
RM: What kind of research did you do for writing the novel as it is very research-intensive?
JMK: I would start to research what is the next biggest coal fire plant in the works, see what they were planning, and how they were raising money. I started writing the book, projecting it into the future, 2040 or 2050. I would think that they are building this coal/oil/fuel plant instead of researching alternative sources. As Google Analytics works, when I was searching for these disasters, I would also get alerts about different climate tragedies and innovations in alternative climate technology.
The reason why it took me so long was that at one point, I had to change from writing it into the future to now, and change all the dates and tenses. For instance, there would be the biggest hurricane that ever happened and, then again there would be the next biggest hurricane. Devastating climate destruction was actually happening now instead of in the future. I had to get the book out now. I wanted to have some hope that the climate crisis can be resolved, instead of writing a dystopian novel. There is hope with getting back into the climate agreement, fixing the infrastructure, and committing to electrification. The timing of the book is great as we might see a major change but we can’t wait for that to happen.
RM: How do you balance your career as a writer and as an environmental activist?
JMK: I learned early on that your work needs to be what you passionate about it to be exciting and not feel like work. I am involved in projects that create positive environmental change through my work, writing, and everything that I do. It fills me up and keeps me occupied, energized, and interested.
RM: What do you like to do when you are not being an activist and a writer?
JMK: I do really enjoy and need to be put in deep, pristine, beautiful, isolated, nature. I go by foot, bike, skis, and paddleboard. I spend a lot of time in my backyard in Colorado which is the mountains and see all the seasons in their glory. For fun, I deejay at our local radio station where I play music for our local community and uplift through music. I am also raising two girls, 13 and 17 years old, that is a full-time job.
RM: Can you tell us about your non-profit, Seas of Trees? How can we get involved?
JMK: It is something we can do to take climate action now. Just the planting of a tree is very satisfying to know that that tree is going to grow up, be longer than maybe the person who planted it, and will help combat climate change. I started this non-profit with my two daughters. It is a youth tree-planting organization that goes along with the message of Eco Queen: we are trying to get kids involved hand-on, hands in the earth, planting trees and seeing what it is like to be making a difference, getting involved, and making a change now. We raise money, buy trees, and plant them, some in Colorado with local youth. We also have done some global programs. We partner with other schools and organizations like in Kathmandu, Nepal, where we partnered with a girls’ school to plant fruit trees. We also did one in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, where the youth replanted an area that had burned and a mudslide had taken out a lot of the forest. We raise money here and translate it into trees.
We started this organization in February, 2020. Our vision is to grow this organization to be a part of the carbon offset program, planting trees on a certain piece of a land. There, corporations and businesses can buy in to offset carbon emissions that their company makes. School teachers can partner with us and contact us here. They would need to get the land and the students, and we would help to purchase local native trees. The students will plant and the school would ensure that there is water on the land to water the plants for the first two years.
RM: What would Eco Queen do? Do you have any tips on how children and adults can make simple environmentally-friendly changes in their homes, schools, and communities?
JMK: Really getting to understand the basics of where things come from; and how much energy it takes for their life, goods, and products; where energy comes to fuel their house, cars; and realizing that the more we burn and waste, the more it’s going into the environment and aggravating the problem. Be aware of the available alternatives, like using a paper straw, turning down the heater, taking your bike instead of driving a short distance. We are all connected; each individual’s decision and behavior have an impact on the climate, the world, and all of us easier.
If you want to be a part of Joanna’s Seas of Trees, you can contact her here. You can read more about the book here and buy it here. You can follow the adventures of Eco Queen on Facebook and Instagram.