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Energized: Grandkids' ideas about fuel prompt grandpa to become an author

Edmonton grandfather creates children's book about the future of energy

While some learned to bake sourdough bread or identify birds during COVID-19, Edmonton’s Bill Gunter accomplished his dream of creating a children’s story about the future of energy. The result is Bearly Over the Mountain, a tale of four children who “put their heads together” to help a train weighed down with people and things power over mountain peaks between Venice and Paris.

Gunter's desire to create the book took shape as he listened to his grandchildren, Clara and Jonah, disparage various forms of energy based on ideas heard in school or on social media. Having retired in 2008 from the Alberta Research Council as an expert in carbon capture and storage, Grandpa Gunter had other ideas.

“It seems the world is polarized about energy forms,” he said. “No one form of energy can solve the world’s energy needs in the future with present technologies.”

When the grandkids visited, Gunter sat down with them to sketch out a story that would challenge children to choose between four forms of energy and in the end realize they needed all four (revamped to be more environmentally friendly) to complete their journey. “I started out reading it to Clara with stick figures, and she kept making suggestions that actually improved the ideas," Gunter said.

Seeking to turn the story into a book, Gunter approached the neighbouring Mahaffy family, who assisted with environmental insights, helping write the book's text and creating visuals for the pages. Writing and publishing became a team effort, echoing the approach taken by the children in the book. Miriam Mahaffy, an artist and environmental educator, created the visuals, and the story's crew of young protagonists even grew to include the Mahaffy family grandchildren, Caleb and Briar.

Gunter based key aspects of the foursome’s journey on the Kaya Identity, which experts use to track human-caused carbon dioxide emissions that play an important role in climate change. Bearly Over the Mountain poses questions about who and what might need to stay behind (or be buried underground) so the train can complete its journey. The book's team also sought ideas from varied experts--international and closer to home--to complete the project.

More than just an entertaining storybook, educators are taking notice too. Teacher Marcia Stiksma predicts the book will appeal to younger ages and 'fill a gap' in schools to illustrate connections between energy use and climate. Neighbour Peter Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at King's University, has even used Bearly Over the Mountain in an environmental chemistry course.

“The story generated questions that helped kick-start an exploration of energy transition,” he said. To invite similar use in elementary and junior high schools, the King's team is creating teaching tools that will be available free online at KCVS.ca.

Gunter sees Bearly Over the Mountain as a “forerunner,” a teaser inviting (but not demanding) deeper understanding. While preschoolers can enjoy its whimsical visuals, can-do characters and repetitive refrains, older readers can learn about the pros and cons of various forms of energy and study the significance of the train’s journey from Venice, where climate change is contributing to flooding, to Paris, site of the most recent international climate accord.

As for Clara, Jonah, Caleb and Briar, who range in age from 12 to 3, becoming characters in a book has sparked energy of its own. “It spurred Clara and one of her friends to start writing a book,” said her mother, Heather Moss. Even Briar, the youngest of the four, whose character initiates some of the most fantastical things (like trying to scrub pollution away with a toothbrush), has memorized large chunks of the book and found joy in speaking her own parts to move the story along.

Bearly Over the Mountain is available in Edmonton at Mandolin Books or Audreys Books and online at Amazon.ca. To read or hear a free electronic version of the book, visit bearly.KCVS.ca.