The Eco-Heroes: The UAE book series that tackles environmental and social issues
Colette Barr, author of The Eco-Heroes series, on making children mindful about food and other waste, ahead of her booked-out session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
They may be young, but food-loving Finlay, Emirati brother and sister Ahmed and Sundos, football fanatic Rudi and studious Maria are on a mission to save the world. And they want us and our little ones to help them.
The characters are the creation of Colette Barr, the Dubai author of The Eco-Heroes series, a collection of stories for young children that cover topical, environmental and social issues, such as recycling, reducing food waste and finding alternative energy sources. The fictional superheroes are schoolchildren living in the UAE; each character takes the starring role in whichever book focuses on their particular environmental passion or “superpower” – be that recycling activist Maria, or Rudi, a South African intent on spreading the word about water conservation.
Barr is the founder of Save Our World, a company she set up with friend, collaborator and illustrator Leona Collins, to allow them to produce, print, market and sell their own books. “The Eco-Heroes books are the first project for Save the World,” Barr says. “We’re self-funded and self-published, and we do the marketing ourselves. As business owners and women, there’s certainly an element of empowerment and a huge amount of passion.”
Barr worked in corporate positions previously, in the oil and gas industry and as a management consultant, but says she had a nagging feeling that none of those roles were allowing her to make enough of a positive social impact. It convinced her to switch things up entirely. “It felt like I was taking, taking, taking,” she says. “I wasn’t giving anything back and that just didn’t feel right.”
She handed in her notice about a year ago. Having always been passionate about environmental conservation and sustainability, and believing that there is a lack of awareness of those initiatives in the region, her focus was clear from the get-go. Her target market is children of primary-school age, a demographic she hopes will become engaged with environmental concerns. “We believe that making young people aware of these issues and getting them excited about being positively proactive is essential,” Barr says. “Not only will they encourage parents to change their behaviour, but also will form good habits for a lifetime. This is the generation that will have to implement these changes in the future, after all.”
Barr is a firm believer that no matter how important the subject, the most effective way to educate and inform young people is by introducing a fun, lighthearted element to it. She cites the Horrid Henry series, as well as Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five books as key influences in her writing. Authenticity and relatability are other crucial factors; when putting the ideas for the books together, Barr visited various schools and eco-groups, and held feedback workshops to ensure that her tone, language, approach and characters resonated with children.
Accordingly, The Eco-Heroes characters are representative of the cultural diversity found in classrooms across the region, and the stories are peppered with references to life in the UAE, in both the words and illustrations. One of the characters lives in Jumeirah, for example, and there’s also talk of Ramadan fridges, vertical farms that grow fruit and vegetables with minimal water, and a picnic takes place in what looks like Safa Park in Dubai (complete with a Burj Khalifa backdrop).
The books are available in Arabic and English, and are printed on recycled paper using vegetable ink. The first story in the collection, The Eco-Heroes Recycling Trip Trouble, was published in October last year, while The Eco-Heroes Fight for Food was released on February 28.
That story positions Finlay the foodie as its hero, and Barr says that it was a conscious decision to make a male character responsible for championing the food cause. The Eco-Heroes Fight for Food takes place over the course of a day spent grocery shopping, baking and enjoying a picnic. It covers wide-ranging issues, including where fresh produce comes from, the importance of healthy eating and cooking from scratch, and the social and cultural benefits of friends and family being able to bond by sharing a meal together. It also addresses food waste: how to prevent this in the first place, suggestions for repurposing leftovers and ideas for composting.
As well as producing the books, Barr and Collins hold talks in schools to raise further awareness and encourage positive action. While the stories are aimed primarily at children between six and 10 years old, the nature of the discussions means that the duo have encountered captive audiences on either side of that age bracket.
“It’s a very interactive approach – we ask lots of questions, show short videos and animation, and invite conversations,” Barr says. “With the younger children, we focus more on the characters and their stories, while with older groups we talk about things like the United Nations’ development goals, and how each individual can interpret these and implement them.”
The remaining three books in The Eco-Heroes series will be published later this year, and both women feel that there is scope for the project to grow. “We really believe that environmental education should become part of the curriculum and that the books would help to do this,” Barr explains.“We would also love to do something for Expo 2020; it seems like there’s a real momentum in the region at the moment and it’s important to seize on that and do what we can now.”
They will be at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature tomorrow as part of the educational programme on a Make a Difference to the World! Panel, moderated by author Rachel Hamilton. The session, which promises to be lively, will be attended by children from 21 schools, and Barr has been told that the response was so overwhelming that the auditorium could have been filled three times over.
While it’s a shame that some young people will miss out on this occasion, at least it shows a keen appetite for information on the subject.
For more information on Save our World and to order the Eco-heroes books, visit www.saveourworld.me.
Meet the eco-heroes
Inspired by his super-fun uncle – a chef, who travels the world cooking – Scottish Finlay has been passionate about food since he was tiny. He is very aware of the importance of knowing where food comes from and trying not to waste it.
The youngest of the eco-heroes, and the one responsible for naming the group, Emirati Ahmed is called the Emperor of Energy by his friends. He is never happier than when learning about renewable energy sources that are kind to the planet.
Ahmed’s older sister and school head girl, confident and kind Sundos is keen to educate others about avoiding single-use plastic.
Hailing from South Africa, football-mad Rudi is extremely conscious that water supplies are not infinite, and we all need to try to conserve water and reduce usage whenever we can.
An expert on the all-important three Rs – reducing, recycling and reusing – Maria doesn’t just educate her peers on the subject, but also often surprises her teachers with new snippets of information.
Updated: March 2, 2019 03:53 PM