Mother, educator and first-time author Beth Starr did not set out to write a kid's treatise on recycling. "I by no means consider myself a tree hugger or whatever name people come up with for people who actually care about the environment," she admits before relating the trip that inspired her book for children, "Rascal & Shady Recycle & Reuse."
While on a camping trip with her husband and young children at an Indiana state park near their home, the family found that they had to collect a good deal of trash at the site before they could set up camp. The kids immediately took to the task and continued collecting trash while hiking trails on the trip.
"As a parent, your first instinct is, 'Don't touch that!' But, in a way, it was kind of nice that they were being helpful," says Starr. To focus her children's efforts (and to get them to go to sleep), Starr devised a bedtime story starring Rascal and Shady, two raccoons with a penchant for making use of what they term "people droppings."
The kids were so taken with the story that when they got home, they continued picking up garbage, unbidden, on Rascal and Shady's behalf. At that point, Starr knew she was onto something. She fleshed out the story into a manuscript about how Rascal and Shady recruit their forest friends to set up a trash collection program, sorting items into those that they can reuse and depositing the rest at a human-run recycling center. In the end, putting the trash to use yields the animals wondrous rewards.
Starr says the key to teaching kids about protecting the environment is abandoning large, abstract concepts in favor of small, tangible ones. "Their world is their backyard, their house and their school. When you start there, educating is simple." It doesn't hurt that Rascal and Shady are silly in a way that appeals uniquely to kids.
The book, illustrated by James Balkovek, was published in January. Starr says a sequel is not out of the question, and has even grander designs for her furry protagonists. "My goal, ultimately, is for Rascal and Shady to become the face of recycling, much like Smokey the Bear is for [the prevention of] forest fires."
But above all, she hopes that kids and their parents will heed the raccoons' simple lesson: "Really, the whole theme of the book is to just pick up after yourself. And that little effort can make a huge difference and inspire other people."