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Conservation Starter: Winnetka author takes on climate change in new preteen series

As Carolyn Armstrong stepped off her plane and onto the sole runway at Longyearbyen’s Svalbard Airport, the northernmost commercial airport in the world, in June 2019, she was struck by the realization that she was somewhere “almost nobody gets to go.” It had, after all, taken her two long-haul flights and a train ride to arrive on the snowy Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands situated more than 1,200 miles north of Oslo and home to just 2,600 people.

But for Armstrong, this pilgrimage to the secluded, Arctic destination was a necessity. For months, the Winnetka-based author researched the locale, the setting of her Arctic-themed novel-in-progress, when she realized she had questions she simply could not answer from behind a computer screen.

Questions like “What does the sun feel like at 3 a.m.?“(The same as at 3pm, apparently.) and, “Could a woman really fly out of a boat if it bumps into submerged ice?” (Yes; she saw it herself.)

Armstrong and her father spent eight days cruising around Svalbard — although she “hates to call it a cruise,” as “it was really more of an expedition.” She chuckled while recalling the differences in priorities between her and her 100-or-so boatmates.

“We would be out on the boat and someone would see a polar bear or a ringed seal, and everyone would get all excited about that,” she said. “Meanwhile, I would be by myself taking an up-close video of sea ice.”

Armstrong’s expedition to Svalbard, she explained, was all about capturing the nuance of the Arctic — what things looked like, sounded like, “even what they smelled like” — so that she could transcribe them onto the page when she returned to the North Shore.

“I wanted people to feel, when reading the book, that I had experienced it myself,” she said.

Four years after her journey, the fruits of Armstrong’s research are finally making it into readers’ hands.

“At the Edge of the Ice” is the first book of Armstrong’s Eco Warriors series.

On July 4, the writer published her second middle-grade novel. In “At The Edge Of The Ice,” 11-year-old twins Sydney and Sierra accompany their photojournalist parents on an assignment to Svalbard, where a mild head injury serendipitously enables Sydney to communicate with the animals around her. And the development could not have come at a better time — climate change has left the polar ecosystem in critical condition, the twins discover, and the animals need Sydney’s help, and her voice, to protect their habitats.

The book is the first installment in the Eco Warriors series, a larger collection that Armstrong said will break down issues of environmentalism and sustainability for kids from a number of different angles — and locations.

“Travel is always going to be a part of my research process,” she said.

Armstrong likes to call the books “fact-based fiction with a touch of fantasy,” which she believes to be the ideal vessel to equip kids with an understanding of and passion for the environment.

A lot of books out there, Armstrong explained, attempt to address the climate crisis with what she calls “brain overload” — an unrelenting deluge of facts that leaves readers feeling overwhelmed and disengaged.

“These books need to be interesting to keep kids’ attention, and that’s where the fantasy (in ‘At The Edge Of The Ice’) comes in,” she explained.

But while the talking polar bears and secret conservation missions that color the twins’ narrative are figments of Armstrong’s imagination, the setting, worldbuilding, and — most importantly — threats facing wildlife, “those come straight from Svalbard,” according to the author.

While “At The Edge Of The Ice” is the inaugural Eco Warriors novel, it’s not Armstrong’s first foray into writing about conservation and the environment. The author’s 2016 debut, “Because of Khalid,” details the budding friendship between a 12-year-old boy from Chicago and a Maasai warrior in the Tanzanian Serengeti, as the two must collaborate to protect local wildlife from an intensifying poaching crisis.

And much like “At The Edge Of The Ice,” “Because of Khalid” draws heavily from Armstrong’s experience traveling in the region where the story is set.

The author was inspired to write “Because of Khalid” after returning home from her own family safari in Tanzania. While she “wouldn’t say (she) was traumatized,” Armstrong remembers spending “a few slightly scary but very exciting nights in a remote part of the Serengeti.”

“I came home and immediately started writing a story inspired by what I saw,” she said.

Carolyn Armstrong, of Winnetka, says travel is paramount to writing.

Armstrong’s penchant for capturing the world around her, both its beauty and its challenges, in her writing has kept the author plenty busy. She already has plans for the next two Eco Warriors installment — settings, topics, plot-points; although, she said that she’s “not supposed to share too much.”

So before sharing the private-for-now premise of Book 2, Armstrong playfully had me lift my hands off my keyboard, proof that I wasn’t typing.

“You can’t write this part down,” she joked. “I’m not supposed to mention these things before they’re public, but I could talk about these books all day long.”

It’s true. At the end of the conversation, I apologized to Armstrong for going over our allotted time, having nearly doubled it, but she wouldn’t have it.

“I love talking about these books,” she said. “I really believe in them.”

What readers can expect from the next Eco Warriors book, Armstrong revealed, is a similar narrative of “kids taking action,” a story that emphasizes both the importance of the environment and the actions young people can take, however small, to protect it.

“I love writing books where kids are doing something, where they’re struck by some wrong and they want to make it right,” Armstrong said. “Kids are gonna save the world someday.”

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Luke Tyson

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