Unreliable Narrators

When my daughter Beatrice was very little, she loved a children’s album called Frog Trouble . . . and Eleven Other Pretty Serious Songs, written by Sandra Boynton and performed by country musicians from Dwight Yoakam to Kacey Musgraves. Bea was especially fond of the title song, “Frog Trouble,” crooned by Mark Lanegan. Over a background chorus of croaks and ribbits, the lyrics tell a story about a problem plaguing the narrator:

There’s only one thing gets a cowboy down
It’s the kind of trouble that we’ve got in this town

Frog trouble
(Frog trouble, frog trouble)

It seems very serious, this unspecified trouble that arrives on the wind—except as you go along, you slowly realize that the narrator isn’t a straight shooter. He doesn’t know “any frogs on a first-name basis.” He tells the story because he wants to feel important. Finally, he admits it: “I made it all up.” 

As an introduction to the device of the unreliable narrator, it’s pretty great: funny, direct, a joke that reveals itself as you go and leaves nobody out. Few of my daughters’ books, aside from Eloise and the Sesame Street books narrated by Grover, use unreliable narrators—I assume because it’s harder for kids to catch on. Children (and some adult readers) are trusting of the words that they read and hear; until they become more sophisticated consumers of media, they take information as it is presented to them. The toy in the commercial is the best ever. The hero is good, the villain bad. The history lesson is true. Don’t litter, do reuse and recycle, and the earth will be clean again.

This last set of lessons, so unchanged since my own school days in the 1980s, is especially difficult to stomach as a parent who thinks daily about climate crisis and the devastating effects already felt by millions, and soon to be felt by all. But how do you tell your child, a hopeful reader and listener, that the landscape she loves will look vastly different by the time she grows up? That it will be hotter, stormier, hungrier? That, over the course of her lifetime, a third of all animals and plants on Earth may go extinct? That most recycling ends up in landfills or the ocean? 

How do you tell a child that the natural beauty that surrounds her is waning, fragile, elegiac? That the frogs are not trouble themselves, but are in trouble, one of hundreds of species threatened with mass extinction because of a crisis whose outcome will be decided before she is even voting age? How do you explain that the real unreliable narrators are all of the adults in charge?



y father, a West Virginia–born carpenter and hippie not prone to sugar-coating, told me when I was a child that most of the places I loved to play—the woods and ravines and riverbanks—would be developed, the trees cut down, the land flattened and bulldozed to make room for houses and shopping malls. With a sinking feeling of dread, I steeled myself for this eventuality. His warning did not exactly come true—the counties where I grew up, on Virginia’s Upper Middle Peninsula, are still recognizably rural. 

Yet other things have changed. When I was little, we measured snowfall in feet, and the ponds and lakes around our house froze solid enough for ice skating. Even the Mattaponi River, wide and tidal, froze in the coldest part of winter. I remember listening to the otherworldly screeching of ice breaking apart as it thawed. My elementary school was not air conditioned—if it was too hot, the principal sent us home early (on the un–air-conditioned school bus). I think that happened once or twice. I remember one hurricane closure from my childhood, and lots of snow days.

Each year we have, on average, a week more of above-ninety-degree days than when we bought our house fifteen years ago.

Now my parents only get an occasional, wet dusting of snow, sometimes a damaging but swiftly melting ice storm; my nephews, who live in Richmond, ice skate at indoor rinks. My parents have faced increasing threats from hurricanes, and recently had to evacuate after a violent supercell thunderstorm toppled a large black walnut tree onto the roof of their early-1800s house. In North Carolina, where my husband and I live almost two hundred miles inland, we evacuated in advance of a hurricane that threatened our entire state when Bea was four and our younger daughter, Harriet, was just a few months old. Each year we have, on average, a week more of above-ninety-degree days than when we bought our house fifteen years ago. Our river, the Haw, now floods its banks about a dozen times a year. 

The reason for all of this—the slushy, unskateable ponds, the flooded riverbanks, the extra-strong storms, the scorching heat—is of course climate change, a phenomenon scientists began to understand in the late 1800s, and that scientists and even American politicians began warning the public about in the 1960s. I remember learning about the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer in seventh grade, which would have been 1988, after the director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies testified before Congress that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” This was presented in our conservative, underfunded, rural public school as a fact rather than a contestable, political opinion. Though we were not told how things could turn around, or how we might participate in a greener, less-hot future. 

Other than what Bea is still told: reduce, reuse, recycle, and don’t litter.



n 2020, the hottest year on record, I began interviewing people from Alamance County, North Carolina, about what they remembered learning about science and U.S. history in high school, middle school, and even elementary school. The project is something I’ve thought about for years and am now working on with a cowriter, Sylvester Allen, who grew up in the small town of Graham, the county seat and the center of a particularly active Black Lives Matter movement.  I became interested in Alamance County because it shares some things in common (child poverty, conservatism, rurality) with King William County, where I grew up, and because I once taught there, in an environmentally focused charter school that served a small, self-selecting group of students. 

Most of the people we have interviewed so far attended large public schools. Though many are younger than I am, few remember hearing anything at all about climate change or the greenhouse effect—perhaps because, by the time they were in school, the climate crisis had been politicized. History was also taught in a selective way—the Civil War referred to as the “war of Northern aggression” and viewed through a Lost Cause mythology, Black and Latinx history and achievements glossed over or skipped entirely. “You would have had parents complain,” explained Brianna Castro, who grew up there in the 1990s and is now completing her dissertation on climate adaptations at Harvard. “My parents still don’t believe in climate change.”

How did people feel once they learned that their teachers, parents, and school board members had been unreliable narrators? Angry, cheated, fed up. “Enraged and upset,” as Dreama Caldwell, now codirector of Down Home NC, a statewide organizing project focused on growing rural communities, said she felt when she realized “all the history that was under [her] feet.” This is particularly true for people, like Dreama and Brianna, who did not have access to factual information at home when they were young, either because of their parents’ political beliefs, because their parents were too consumed with the hard work of making ends meet, or simply because their moms and dads trusted the system to educate their children properly.

On a trip to school in spring 2021, shortly before Earth Day, I asked Bea if she ever talked about climate change at school. “No,” she said flatly. “Do you know what it is?” I asked, slightly hesitantly. “Yes,” she said. “Of course.” 

Bea is only in second grade, and I understand the reasons her classrooms have not addressed it—it’s a complicated, grim topic, not well represented or supported by the statewide public school curriculum. The first time anything resembling the direct study of climate change appears in our state’s science standards is seventh grade: “Conclude that the good health of humans requires: monitoring the atmosphere, maintaining air quality and stewardship.” 

You can’t remove discomfort with legislation, and distress is everywhere, particularly for children, who worldwide are the group most affected by climate crisis and pollution.

As a former K-12 teacher, I know that what Beatrice learns in school, particularly about science and history, will depend greatly on factors outside of my control—which teacher she’s assigned; whether the still-raging pandemic limits in-person instruction, field trips, and guest speakers. It may also be affected by how deeply our Republican legislature decides to involve itself in public-school curriculum. Like red-state legislatures across the country, ours has already passed an anti–critical race theory bill, which sought, among other things, to limit the “discomfort” and “distress” felt by white, male students in history classrooms (it was vetoed by our governor, a Democrat). One could imagine a similar law being passed about energy consumption and carbon footprints of children who live in large houses, or ride to school in SUVs.

But you can’t remove discomfort with legislation, and distress is everywhere, particularly for children, who worldwide are the group most affected by climate crisis and pollution. Almost every child on the planet contends with an environmental hazard, and a third of all children—eight hundred fifty million kids—struggle with four or more environmental threats, including heat waves, cyclones, air pollution, and water scarcity.

As a mother, I haven’t hidden much from Beatrice, mostly because it’s hard to imagine, raising a child through the daily horrors of the Trump administration and the escalating climate crisis, how I would have maintained the fallacy that everything is fine. We have been to protests together; we have canvassed Democratic voters in poor neighborhoods and middle-class ones and, during the pandemic, over the phone. Once, at a peaceful, all-ages march to the polls in Alamance County that was organized by Black Lives Matter activists and led by Reverend Gregory Drumwright, we were pepper-sprayed by police. This happened almost immediately after nine minutes of silent kneeling in memory of George Floyd. Beatrice is acutely aware that things are not fine or fair, and that making change happen is a long, uncomfortable journey that is taken alongside many other people.

At the same time, she has been lucky to live for most of her almost-eight years in a tract of protected forestland along the Haw River, in Chatham County. No one in our community can develop their land, cut down more than 50 percent of their trees, or even install bright outdoor lighting. Bea and her little sister Harriet have grown up trekking up and down our steep, wooded property, splashing in the Haw, and foraging for mushrooms and pawpaws. They love where they live (though Harriet sometimes says she wishes we had a “normal driveway”), and identify strongly as stewards of nature and friends of animals.

Still, the county we live in, and even the road we live on, has changed significantly in those eight years. Clearcutting, both for timber and to make room for housing developments, has disrupted animal habitats and increased erosion and harmful runoff into the river. River levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the cancer-causing “forever chemicals” produced by chemical manufacturing upstream, are so high that our drinking water in Pittsboro is among the most polluted in the country. 

Bea knows all of this. I remind her not to swallow the river water or open her eyes under its tea-colored surface, and she grudgingly complies. “Don’t people know that we need trees to breathe?” she asks, incredulous, every time we drive by a tangle of underbrush and tree stumps. We pick up trash, donning gloves and walking along the riverbanks with garbage bags. We reuse. We recycle. We read.



e also started writing. On Earth Day of 2021, Bea and I started a digital newsletter called the Frog Trouble Times. This newsletter has its origins in a paper version that we occasionally mailed to a few friends and relatives after Harriet’s birth—mostly updates about the baby, animal sightings, book recommendations, and jokes. In two years we published about twenty issues. Of course the name comes from the Sandra Boynton song, its goofy self-seriousness.

When a neighbor texts with a question—Where are all the acorns this year? What are the squirrels gonna eat?—we investigate it.

The digital version of the Frog Trouble Times is about parenthood, childhood, and climate change. It also has jokes and book recommendations, but the primary focus is on observing, investigating, and describing the environment—the river, trees, plants, animals, weather, and amazements that still surround us, even as the earth is on fire, flooding, and in withering drought. In some ways, it harks back to the citizen-science writing projects I designed when I was a K-12 teacher, which had their own roots in Henry David Thoreau’s journals and took more recent inspiration from the nature writing of Annie Dillard, Janisse Ray, J. Drew Lanham, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. When a neighbor texts with a question—Where are all the acorns this year? What are the squirrels gonna eat?—we investigate it. (Last year was a mast year for oaks, we learned, but we’re still seeing fewer acorns than we’d expect—potentially another sign of climate disruption). We’ve written about the joys of kite-flying, the craft possibilities of seashells, the cleverness of beavers, and the magic of luna moths. We have interviewed writers we admire about their “oldest, best things” (a series we started after investigating the need to reduce plastics). Bea, who identifies as a witch, has written posts on spells and squirrel rescue.

But we started with frogs—or rather, with frog eggs. In late April, we found several muddy, gelatinous egg clusters in a nearly dried-up puddle where they would not survive to hatch. We scooped them into mason jars, and carried them home to our deck. We documented how we were caring for and feeding the newly-hatched tadpoles, which grew into froglets, and why as soon as they sprout four legs you need to “get those frogs out of the water before they drown,” as Bea wrote in one of her many how-to posts. We photographed and wrote about their return to the stream, and what it was like to watch them swim confidently toward a rock on the other side.

The Frog Trouble Times affects how I experience things I used to take for granted—all the hikes, animal sightings, and moments of beauty (and sometimes fury) that I once experienced and expressed privately, and told myself I’d write about someday. It pushes me to document, and also to research and reflect alongside my daughter. It has taught both of us more about PFAS, for example, and how companies have been allowed to dump chemicals we know to be cancer-causing into rivers and streams that supply our drinking water. I explained to Bea that the EPA (led by climate-change deniers during the Trump years) had overruled the conclusions of scientists, and allowed the companies to keep releasing these chemicals. “If I had the power, I’d turn myself invisible and teleport to the book of rules,” she said in response. “I’d cross out the bad rules and write, ‘No polluting the river!’”

We now publish three times a week (Bea usually writes one post mostly solo, we cowrite one, and I write the third), which is proving to be a demanding schedule, almost like a newsroom. We have a few hundred subscribers, and though we started by thinking we could raise money for environmental causes, we’ve decided to keep the newsletter completely free, both for wider access and to remove the idea of money from the project. Our biggest fan is my mom, Bea’s Mamie, who texts me if a post is late, but I hear from other people too: writers and parents and friends and colleagues, former teachers and people I knew growing up.

“You’ll be glad one day that you have this,” a colleague wrote to me the other day. I think he meant that I’d be happy to have this record of my Bea’s young life: photos and written accounts of her and her sister climbing trees, exploring streams, or holding a thickly layered hunk of bald eagle’s nest that had fallen to the forest floor. I’m acutely aware that, like the wriggling tadpoles that were soon climbing the walls of mason jars with sticky, padded feet, my children will be grown in the blink of an eye.

I’m also aware that we are documenting a moment in time that may well be gone too. Not the last snowstorm in our area or the last hatch of leopard frogs, but the time in which we still had time to mitigate the damage, and “avoid the worst consequences” of climate crisis, as youth climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted after the most recent climate report from the United Nations. In 2030, the year by which we must halve greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unlivable future conditions, Beatrice will be seventeen years old, still too young to vote or have any meaningful say in what happens to her future. My hope is that what we are doing now is a tribute to the potential beauty of that future—not only for kids, but also frogs and squirrels and beavers and snakes and spiders and trees. I hope that in the same way it is helping me to hone my narrative voice—what I say to my children, and maybe yours, about this world we’re leaving to them—it is helping Beatrice grow into hers.

In the meantime, we have eight years. We intend to celebrate as many moments within these years as we can, and—for the time being, at least—say something reliable and true about them on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.