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Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory: Enhancing the book industry, and increasing understanding of environmental issues through children's reportage picture-books

Allan Drummond

Children around the world are engaged with environmental issues, and want to know how they can make a difference. A series of three picture books created by Allan Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Illustration at ARU, tell the stories of real-life communities and help children to see that change is possible.

The books, which focus on issues of sustainability and resilience, have been used in schools and libraries around the world, and by organisations working to raise understanding of environmental issues.

Allan Drummond

Allan Drummond

Allan is Senior Lecturer in Illustration at ARU, and the creator of a number of award-winning children's books. His research focuses on the interaction of words and pictures in print and digital media

Find out more about Allan Drummond Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Allan Drummond’s research led him to develop a new style of reportage or documentary-style illustrated, narrative picture-books, focussed on issues of environmental sustainability and resilience and aimed at the children’s market.

His series of three picture books – Green City (2016), Pedal Power (2017) and Solar Story (2020) – communicate real-world challenges experienced by communities in different parts of the world, in a way that is accessible to young readers.

Green City depicts a community in the USA rebuilding after a tornado. Pedal Power centres on a mother in the Netherlands who played a significant part in street demonstrations for safer cycling, and Solar Story features a small, mainly Berber community, living beside the world’s largest solar power plant in Morocco.

Building on reportage illustration traditions, Drummond’s books exemplify a novel approach for the children’s publishing industry. They are further distinguished by their thematic focus on environmental sustainability and resilience.

With a recognisable style, common themes and combination of narrative and factual information, Drummond’s series holds a distinctive place in the commercial book market.

Drummond undertook in-depth research to support the creation of his books.

It began with location visits, interviews with individuals to understand in more detail the themes of sustainability and resilience, sketches, photography, and storyboards to establish an intimate understanding of place, people and events. This was supported by further investigation into the events and locations, including photographic archive research.

Back in the studio, Drummond explored ways of combining words, pictures, lettering, typography and page design. All three titles use coloured sidebars in extended margins to relate scientific facts without interrupting the flow of the narrative. They also feature an author’s note and give reference sources for further study.

Green City addresses the power of community spirit in overcoming devastation. It highlights the importance of sustainability, using the example of the rebuilding of Greensburg in Kansas, after a tornado destroyed 95% of the city in 2007. Drummond included quotes from historic videos and recordings in the narrative; extended imagery and narrative into the book’s endpapers; and used full-bleed imagery to depict the overwhelming power of the storm. Drummond worked with Tom Fox and Daniel Wallach, who established the Greensburg GreenTown movement. Daniel appears as a character in the book.

The reportage method is also critical to Pedal Power, which looks at events in the Netherlands that helped to prioritise bicycle use as sustainable transportation. Drummond interviewed, sketched and photographed the story’s main protagonist Maarte Van Putten. Back in the studio he explored ways of depicting Van Putten and her young son as they would have looked in 1973, collaborating with press photographer Hans van den Bogaard in the use of archive photographs. In this book, the endpapers are used to highlight key events in the history of the bicycle.

Finally for Solar Story, Drummond visited the world’s largest solar energy plant near the Sahara Desert in Morocco. He was introduced to farmers and schoolchildren in a small Berber community living nearby and, through investigating word-picture combinations in the studio, decided to make the schoolchildren the focus of the story. They are the protagonists and storytellers – and they help to make serious issues accessible to younger readers.

Front cover of the book Solar Story by Allan Drummond

Summary of the impact

  • Drummond’s books Green City, Pedal Power and Solar Story have been used as educational material in primary schools, with staff noting ‘an increased awareness of environmental and sustainability issues' among children
  • Organisations involved in environmental sustainability have used the books to promote their message, with one commenting that 'Allan’s books tell the stories of real-life communities; it is very empowering for people, including children, to see what is possible'
  • The books, which address and educate young readers on global environmental issues, are sold in nine countries. Excerpts are also licensed for use in educational textbooks


Drummond’s books address and educate young readers on global environmental issues, the importance of sustainability, and the need for resilience in facing such issues.

The books are sold in nine countries, and have been used as educational material in primary schools in Ireland, the USA, Canada and Japan. A lecturer in the School of Informatics and Computing at Purdue University at Indianapolis noted how she had ‘woven Green City into [her] course materials as an outstanding example of how informational picture books based on real events can inspire youth in environmental topics across the curriculum’.

Green City, one in a series of three books, was one of the winners at NTSA’s Best STEM Books awards in 2017. These awards were established in 2017 by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in the USA, and continue to be awarded every year. The book was considered to have been ‘modelling innovation, demonstrating authentic problem-solving and assimilation of new ideas, all while exploring solutions that show progressive change or improvement’.

All three books – the series includes Pedal Power and Solar Story as well as Green City – have formed the basis of educational resources developed by teachers and been used in classrooms. Staff have noted ‘an increased awareness/interest of environmental and sustainability issues as well as global awareness’ among children.

In Canada, the University of Alberta’s public engagement programme has posted videos on YouTube of Drummond’s books being read aloud, as part of the Future Energy Systems programme. A similar approach has been taken by researchers in the USA. The programme co-ordinator in Alberta observed that ‘online content means more people can connect to the work we do. That is a huge benefit for us because the whole point is breaking down barriers between us, other organisations and the wider community’. She has also created resources that draw on Drummond’s books for use in schools and with children’s organisations such as the Girl Guides.

Read more about more about increased awareness of environmental issues.

Drummond’s books have supported organisations and companies involved in environmental sustainability to promote the agenda in different countries.

In Japan, The Real Estate Companies Association of Japan awarded Green City a prize for teaching young readers about the theme of disaster reconstruction, the environment and sustainable town development.

In the USA, the renewable energy company Arcadia promotes Solar Story as ‘one of the best books to teach kids about renewable energy’.

In Canada, the Outreach and Engagement Co-ordinator of Future Energy Systems noted the benefit of the books in their work, observing that ‘Climate change and the energy transition impact everyone and it is essential that we can provide information directly to the public about the work we are doing. Allan’s books help with this… as they are engaging and understandable’.

Similarly, the education officer of the Sustainable Energy Office of Ireland, which has used Drummond’s books in school outreach work, observed: ‘It is really impactful that Allan’s books tell the stories of real-life communities; it is very empowering for people, including children, to see what is possible and aim to replicate this themselves’.

Reviews of Drummond’s books have highlighted their significance. The New York Times called Pedal Power ‘a celebration of both cycling and political activism’, while Kirkus Reviews considered Solar Story ‘a valuable look at sustainability and development’. Meanwhile The Horn Book Guide – one of the most distinguished journals in the field of children's and young adult literature – described Green City as ‘a triumph of both community action and scientific writing’.

Read more about more about use of books by environmental organisations.

Green City, Pedal Power and Solar Story were first published in the USA by Macmillan. In 2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt purchased a reprint licence for a total of 1,380,000 users for Green City. This comprised English and Spanish versions of print copies, e-books, and embedded audio for their worldwide Collections/Reading 2019 Program.

In 2017 Pearson acquired rights to publish 500,000 print and 500,000 digital copies of Green City for their School Reading programme. They bought further rights in 2019.

The financial details are commercially sensitive, but the books have worldwide reach, being translated into Spanish and Japanese and selling in the region of 28,000 copies. Benefit has also been derived from selling translation rights and licensing excerpts for educational textbooks.

Read more about more about commercial benefit for publishers.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, target 13.3.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 32: Enhancing the book industry, and increasing understanding of environmental issues through children’s reportage picture-books

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