Can Kids Save the Rain Forest?

A HAND-ME-DOWN in any form is no fun. Yet for some of you, getting stuck with one (or two or three...) is a fact of family life: You live in a house full of taller brothers and sisters, and parents who inspect tired clothing through a "just-like-new!" lens.

But even if you're one of the fortunate ones who have escaped a brother's faded jacket or a sister's stretched-out sweater - hold on. There's another kind of family you belong to called the global family. And there are hand-me-downs in this larger circle that you (and your generation) cannot escape: planet problems like hunger, homelessness, war, and environmental destruction.

Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps you have classes right now that are pushing you to look - for the first time in your life - at a world that goes beyond your own backyard. As these global issues begin to enlarge your view of the "outside world," do you

feel them also changing you? For instance, has your concern for the human race and your planet begun to widen and deepen? And are you feeling a strong urge to "do something" to help?

But trying to make sense of humanity's ageless and border-less problems is no easy task. Where do you begin? Thinking about them can often leave you feeling tiny. And even if you decide to take action to fix these enormous problems, "you're just a kid," right? Aren't big tangles supposed to be reserved for big people like Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi?

Last summer I met a young person who, like you, cares about these tough, global issues. And guess what? She's neither stuck nor voiceless. Her name is Kristin Joy Pratt, and at 14, she wrote and illustrated an ABC book for the littlest generation, called: "A Walk in the Rainforest."

I was introduced to this teenager (who's now 16), and her mom at one of the newest and largest bookstores in Boston. They had traveled here from their home in St. Louis on a book-promotion tour. Last spring (when her book came out), and then through the summer, Kristin went on the road to meet kids and parents in bookstores across the country. At each store, she read aloud her story and autographed her book, the cover of which is splashed with purple rain.

An hour before she walked into the children's room to turn into a celebrity teen, we got an opportunity to talk. We were led upstairs to a cold, off-white conference room. And as we walked in, I watched her generous smile, sparkling eyes, and purple T-shirt and hair-bow brighten the room's drabness.

After we settled down at a long table, I asked her how old she was when she first started drawing. In a playful tone, she responded, "As soon as I could hold a crayon." Then she recollected: "In first grade I remember little kids always talked about, `Well, when I grow up I'm gonna be....' Everybody else wanted to drive fire engines. I always said I wanted to be an artist. `Oh,' they said, `You mean like Picasso?' and I said, `Well, not quite....' " At eight, Kristin left her Crayola Period and got invol ved in group art lessons. Today, she's made the jump into serious private lessons.

So what led this young artist to illustrate and write a book about the rain forest? The idea originated during her freshman year at Principia Upper School in St. Louis, Mo., she told me. She found herself in an honors English class with a teacher who was keen on independent projects. The theme had to relate to English, Kristin recalled, "which meant it could be anything."

In addition to this class, she was enrolled in a biology class that was making her aware of the rapid disappearance of the rain forests. "I had this incredible teacher who was really good at impressing the point that it was our generation that had to do something about the destruction of the rain forest."

As Kristin took this environmental duty to heart, she also discovered from her mom, a preschool teacher, that rain-forest books for young children were short in supply. By composing an ABC storybook about the rain forest, Kristin saw a way she could do what she loved most (draw) and fulfill her English project. What took form was a fun alphabet tale about XYZ (the ant), who spots 26 different plants and animals on a walk in the rain forest.

So what happened when a "not quite Picasso" artist with a heart-felt impulse created a book, and then returned to class with completed book in hand?

"The class flipped when I turned it in," she remembered. "I knew it was gonna be different. But I didn't know how different." Her teacher liked the book so much, she pushed Kristin to take it one step further: The next term she had to publish it.

Kristin made her first contact with the publishing kingdom in a letter she sent to Dawn Publications, a company brought to her attention by a family member. Based in California, this publisher's stated goal is dedicated to "helping people experience a sense of unity and harmony with all life."

The company decided that Kristin's book was for them, and immediately signed a contract with her. According to her mom, they were "really outstanding about working closely with Kristin. They could have bought her idea and ... done with it what they wanted. But they wanted it to be all from her."

It was the publisher's idea to add a paragraph of information on the exotic rain-forest species illustrated on each page. Naturally, much of Kristin's summer that year was spent at the library with stacks of books about the rain forest. And her biggest writing challenge? As she puts it: to "squash a ton of stuff into paragraphs." But this artist is also no stranger to the written word. "I've always liked writing little stories," she was quick to say. According to Kristin, it's an interest likely traced t o elementary school, where she took part in writing workshops run by published authors.

Near the end of the hour-long interview, our words were suddenly cut off by a buzzy voice that came out of the walls. The deafening words proclaimed: "Kristin Joy Pratt will be visiting the children's room at three o'clock...."

The interruption at once pressed the interview into a heavier gear. I threw a larger question her way: Did she honestly think kids could make a dent in global problems?" Without pause, Kristin nodded and tossed back, "Definitely."

Then she immediately launched into a story about the Children's Eternal Forest, a five-year-old rain-forest project founded by a nine-year-old boy from Sweden. The study of tropical forests also prompted him to "do something" about the destruction, she told me. And his desire and willingness to ask "What can I do?" led him to organize a campaign drive at school to raise money to "buy back" a rain forest in Costa Rica, she pointed out.

So what does Kristin think is the most important message she's offering the public? "I think basically it's a two-prong idea of breaking limitations." The first part comes from the words of veteran environmentalist Jacques Cousteau: "He said that people protect what they love. So when you teach kids to love then they can protect [the environment]." And the second part? "Kids can make a lot of difference because they can see things a lot clearer sometimes, without the political issues and stuff.... When

Jesus talked to people, he said you should become like little children because they have the most open mind.... So you have children who are willing to try anything."

In her junior year, Kristin is learning about marine biology and has already begun working on her next alphabet book for tots. The subject? "Saving the oceans." She hopes to get it into bookstores before graduating. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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