Christopher Cousins, a PhD candidate from Oregon State University, has received a $100,000 scholarship to further his work of researching habitat refugia and turning his findings into a bilingual children’s book for Latino youth.
The Bullitt Environmental Prize recognizes young people who have overcome adversity to become powerful environmental leaders. Cousins, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, noticed a lack of outreach to the Latino community regarding environmental issues and thought children’s books would be a good way to spread climate awareness.
“That project was born out of a desire to create outreach material for communities that don't really get that,” Cousins said. “Scientific information is not shared well with a lot of the population, but especially underserved communities and migrant families.”
Cousins’ research centers around amphibians living in headwaters, and protecting their habitats in a changing climate. While the research is more complex than what actually makes it into the children’s book, he keeps the central theme of wildlife preservation to show kids that they belong in the environmental movement and are a part of it themselves.
Each page will have the text in English and Spanish, which Cousins thinks will make it easier for families to read together.
“My mom is a little better at reading Spanish than English,” he said. “We wanted these books to be available to communities regardless of the generational differences in language. Having both languages on each page allows them to read it together.”
The book that Cousins is working on right now is called “Nuestra Casa”, which translates to “our home.” It features two child narrators who meet two amphibian narrators while playing outside. The book elicits themes of belonging and stewardship with characters in which Latino youth can recognize themselves.
Cousins is not doing this project alone — he and a team of four others are putting the book together. OSU Dr. Tiffany Garcia is working on story and character design, Isabel Justiniano is working on translations, Jessica Li is the copy editor and Jordan Eaton is the illustrator.
“Nuestra Casa” is the first book in what Cousins hopes to make a series.
“Our target age is six to eight, and we thought instead of focusing on climate change, let's just look at it like you belong here,” he said. “The environment is not just its own thing, but you're a part of it, and you can take care of it as well.”
Cousins has a graduate teaching assistant position at the university, and with the scholarship money he can spend his summers focusing on the books instead of teaching. He also said it’s important to him that everyone who helps out on the project is fairly paid, so the money will also go toward giving his team members a stipend.
Cousins grew up in a Navy family, living in Japan and Iceland before going to school in the states. He always felt at home in nature, but didn’t realize that it could be a career path until he was much older. He hopes his books will inspire children to study the environment, especially if they didn’t know that was an option.
“I would go and catch frogs in the rice paddies and take measurements,” Cousins remembered. “This feels like a gift. And I think that's why I get pretty excited about the books. I don't want other people to have to wait until they're 29 to know that this is something you can do.”
Cousins said he is not sure why there is such a lack of outreach to the Latino community around environmentalism, but that it probably has to do with how inaccessible academia seems to working families. But recently, he’s noticed things have started to improve.
“It's made me really happy to go out to the gorge and see more Latino families like hiking,” he said. “I've started to see hunters of color and other Latinx hiker groups. And so I think it is changing, but I don't know what the issue is historically.”
Cousins does not have an exact timeline for when the book will be available, but right now it is going through the editing and publishing process. And while it’s been challenging to switch from writing scientific literature to children’s books, he said it’s been fun to work with the team and create something new.
“I certainly would not have been able to do it without the people that I work with,” Cousins said. “Everyone on the team has just been so excited, and that has made the project take a life of its own.”
Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.