Reading About Sustainability: Middle-Grade Fiction!

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
May 2023
Middle-Grade Edition!

The Fires of Tanam Alkin by Sadie Noni (self-published on Amazon)
Berani by Michelle Kadarusman (Pajama Press Books)

Welcome to the May 2023 edition of #ReadingAboutSustainability. I have something different this month. After reading fundamental climate change literature, I wanted to branch out and feature some fiction. I don’t read middle grade books often, but I thought this would be an excellent place to start, and was truly inspired by my reading. In upcoming editions, I plan to feature fiction for different age groups.

Read These Books If: You’re looking for fiction that focuses on environmental issues while serving up great stories. I’ve always felt that fiction can be a fantastic vehicle for teaching key lessons, and these two books deliver. Though they are targeted at the middle-grade reader, as an adult I found them engaging and fun…and I learned a ton. Though they both address the mindset of environmentalism as a whole, they specifically focus on the palm oil industry and deforestation in Indonesia.

About the authors:

Sadie Noni penned her debut novel The Fires of Tanam Alkin from her home in Indonesia. She has a background in physics, education and the development sector, and is “​​passionate about using climate fiction to inspire action on urgent environmental issues.” She did undergraduate studies in the US, and graduate studies in Hong Kong. Her bio on Amazon notes that her name is a pseudonym and an anagram (I’ll let you find out for yourself what it is!). She reached out to me about her novel, and I decided to give it a go.

Michelle Kadarusman is a Canadian-Australian-Indonesian children’s book author, and apparently Berani is based on a couple of real life incidents. She and her brother did help to save a caged orangutan, and writing about the palm oil industry was partly spurred by her reading about school kids in Indonesia reprimanded for speaking out against it. Her books are much celebrated, and her previous novel Girl of the Southern Sea was a Governor General's Literary Award in Children's Fiction finalist.

Why I wanted to read them: Honestly, I sort of stumbled into these books. I suppose my scanning for important environmental books has grown to encompass fiction, and why not? Stories are a fantastic way to teach while entertaining, and it is crucially important to start teaching young people about some of the key environmental issues we face. These two books take the broader issue of environmentalism and sustainability and use the example of monoculture agriculture in Indonesia to demonstrate the point. It’s at once calling attention to this specific, important issue, and at the same time raising awareness that similar environmental issues are happening the world round. They pair beautifully.

The Books!:

The Fires of Tanam Alkin
“But what is the price of doing nothing, Guardian? And who bears it? You are a part of the whole, are you not? Like the trees, the orangutans, the tigers…Do not underestimate your power. You influence more than you think.”
This novel is targeted at 11-15 year olds (upper middle grade), featuring Aira and Dain, two teens who fight environmental degradation first in their home villages, then in the bigger cities of Tanam Alkin. They discover their heritage as Guardians of the plant and animal worlds, and learn about some of the devastating effects of deforestation and the palm oil industry.

This is a thoughtful book, with writing and ideas that are simple and straightforward but at the same time engaging. The spirit world of plants and animals is ever-present, and deities communicate (in bold text, which was effective) with Aira and Dain as they discover what it means to be a Guardian. They begin as ordinary teens who know little about the effects of mass agriculture on their local ecosystems, each with a story that begins on a local level. Aira’s village has no water flowing to it anymore and as she begins her investigation, she discovers her ability to talk with the trees and plants. She follows the water to its source and discovers all is not well. The use of industrial fertilizers is poisoning the water. Dain is hunting a tiger that is menacing his village, but he wants to spare the creature. When he becomes a Guardian, taking on the powers of a tiger, he begins to learn why tigers are encroaching onto human territory and learns about devastating deforestation.

Both Aira and Dain come to the story as innocent to detrimental practices, but we are able to learn along with them, with “beginner’s eyes” to explore greater sustainability issues. Within the narrative, there is occasionally a chapter that pauses the action a bit, focusing on a story that serves as an illustration of a point. For example, Dain follows a group of orangutans in the forest canopy and one of their babies becomes poisoned after eating a contaminated palm fruit. This is our introduction into the plight of the orangutan, at risk due to industrial agriculture and deforestation. The stories eventually merge to focus on the palm oil industry, something I don’t know much about. Even as an adult, I was invested in the story, and learned a lot.

Honestly, I was amazed by how many environmental issues author Noni packed into a short novel without it feeling preachy or overcrowded. Rather, it felt appropriate and natural. Plastic pollution in the water? Check. Pesticide use? Check. The plight of farm workers? Check. Income inequality? It’s here too.

By the end of Aira and Dain’s journeys, and after some really difficult scenes of environmental catastrophe, all is not okay. The book raises the issues and leaves us with questions that still need to be answered. The message here? Despite the short term pain of changing our destructive ways, it needs to be done for continued survival of humans and all other flora and fauna on the earth. The story highlights humans’ need to take responsibility and engage in change behaviours. Instead of ending the book with the traditional “The End,” Noni ends it with “The Beginning”. This lent a realistic but hopeful finale to the book, which I think is crucial for the upper middle-grade reader. Hope rather than despair galvanises us to action.

I think this would be an excellent book for anyone (I certainly enjoyed it!) but particularly for the target age group of 11-15 year olds. I suspect they will identify readily with Aira and Dain, and feel drawn in by the animal and tree stories. There is absolutely some difficult content, such as animal death and peril, and forest fires, but it’s age appropriate for readers, with that warning. Environmental crisis is not an easy thing to learn about, but this is a fantastic introduction to a difficult topic. It’s heartening to see self-published work of such integrity and quality.


This is a middle grade novel with a target age range of 8-12 years old. In Malay, “berani” means brave, or bold. Indeed, the characters in Kadarusman’s novel have to be very brave, standing up to family members, teachers and the authorities to fight for an orangutan and to raise awareness of environmental issues.

From the blurb: “Michelle Kadarusman spins together three perspectives: Malia, who is prepared to risk anything for her activism, Ari, who knows the right path but fears what it will cost, and Ginger Juice, the caged orangutan who still remembers the forest and her mother. The choices the young people make will have consequences for themselves, for Ginger Juice, and for others, if they are brave enough—or reckless enough—to choose.”

The writing was seamless, and I enjoyed following the spirited Malia’s activism, and Ari’s gradual transformation from innocent ignorance to championing a caged orangutan’s rescue. Both of their actions come at personal cost. I had to get accustomed to the way that Ginger Juice’s chapters flowed, but I appreciated that Kamarusman tried to show us the orangutan’s perspective. She apparently did a lot of research about orangutan behaviour in preparation for writing the book.

There’s a great story on the page, but there are also crucial life lessons that Kadarusman brings to life. Decentering human life as the only metric of importance, and beginning to recognize that non-human animals and the flora around us are not completely separate to us (we are all one) is key here. Standing up to authorities that may intimidate-especially if they represent systems that are oppressive or motivated largely by profit-takes courage, but also thoughtfulness. Malia and Ari have to make choices that affect others unintentionally, and that’s a difficult but important lesson to learn.

Middle-grade readers will find it easy to engage with Malia and Ari, and be naturally drawn to Ginger Juice. I liked reading this paired with The Fires of Tanam Alkin, but of course, even read alone I think it’s good for all ages and will be a great introduction for young readers.

What I learned: I had the notion that palm oil had downsides, but these books crystallised the issues for me in a relatable way. Deforestation, loss of animal habitat, displacement of peoples, and contribution to climate change are issues that I’m now aware of. This book duo spurred me to do some of my own research–there is so much great information out there, and I’ve listed some starting places below. Actions I may take? I’ll start looking at the labels of food and other products that I buy and try to eliminate my palm oil consumption, choosing less problematic oils instead. I can also keep talking about this issue to increase awareness.

Further Resources:

Here’s a CBC interview to read more about Michelle Kadarusman’s motivations for writing Berani.

There is a lot of information on palm oil on the internet. Here is Rainforest Rescue’s information, and they have several articles you can explore on their website.
For younger kids, National Geographic Kids talks about palm oil in a relatable way.


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