About the Authors
Shaunna and John Stith are passionate about protecting the planet. Originally from the East Coast, they now live on the Santa Barbara Channel in Southern California where they are continually inspired by the hard work of young eco-activists. Like their protagonist Sam, they’ve learned it feels a whole lot better to stand up and act than to sit back and watch. When the two are not busy writing stories or exploring the outdoors, Shaunna practices law and John works as a writer for nonprofits and advocacy organizations. Black Beach is their first picture book together.
Scroll down to the Q&A to learn more!
Copyright 2023 Little Bee Books
The Story Behind The Story
Tell us a bit about yourselves.
We’re both passionate about protecting the planet. We know, we know – it says that in our author bio, but it’s true! Shaunna grew up in a small town in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. And John grew up in a slightly larger town in rural Virginia, nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Because we were both close to such natural beauty, appreciating and caring for the Earth was baked into our lives from an early age. We now live in Southern California next to the dazzling Santa Barbara Channel – one of the most biologically diverse underwater habitats in the entire world! There’s so much natural beauty here, and we try to spend as much time as we can outside. But it’s by no means an undeveloped area. On clear days, we can see the oil platforms featured in our book still looming on the horizon – more than 50 years after the events of Black Beach: A Community, an Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day.
What drew you to this story?
The seed for Black Beach was first planted in 2019 when John was taking a course in Sustainable Business. One of the latter units of the program touched on the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and how it served as the inflection point for the first Earth Day. At the time, we were working on other stories – but this fact (and the fact that we had never heard about it – despite celebrating Earth Day our entire lives) stood out. Some quick research revealed that this powerful piece of history wasn’t widely known and no one had written about it in a way that was accessible for kids. We remember looking at each other and wondering: How can nearly every elementary school student participate in Earth Day activities, but hardly any of them know what started the movement? Origin stories are so big today – from comic books to TV to everything in between. And here was an essential environmental origin story just waiting to be told! We met with our agent that summer at the ALA annual conference in Washington, DC, told her our plan, and were off to the races! Little did we know, it would take four years(!) for the book to finally come to fruition. Rounds and rounds of research and revision were in our future.
What is your goal in writing Black Beach?
Like many people today, we often struggle to understand all that is going on with the environment and what we can do to help. But we both write for our day jobs, so telling a story that could inform – and ideally even inspire – seemed like a good place to start. Ultimately, kids are the ones who will be most affected by climate change and how people choose to treat the Earth, so our hope is that Black Beach helps them see they have the power to make a real difference. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they have to be passive players in the decisions that are being made about the planet’s future! Plus, getting involved with a local or national environmental cause is one of the best ways to fight eco-anxiety. We’re both very active in our local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which means we get to see firsthand the effect young eco-activists can have on their community. Talk about inspiration! There are few things more motivating than when a kid comes back from a beach cleanup excited to show you all the different types of trash or recyclables they’ve picked up and prevented from going into the ocean (check out a fun cleanup video here). Our goal in sharing this story is similar to that type of activity. If Black Beach readers come away with a better understanding of why Earth Day was created and how their actions truly do matter, then we’ll have achieved our goal.
Tell us about your protagonist, Sam. Why did you choose to tell the story from her point of view?
Sam is a fictional character. Even though Black Beach is the true story of the first Earth Day, we wanted to give ourselves an editorial license to create a window through which kids could see and connect with the events of the story – despite the fact that they took place over 50 years ago. For us, that meant creating a protagonist based on our research and the stories people have shared about the oil spill and its aftermath. We hope readers will be able to relate to Sam as she goes through a rollercoaster of emotions in the wake of this unprecedented ecological disaster. She experiences so much, so fast, but in doing so finds her voice and channels her feelings into something incredibly productive! When readers identify with Sam, we hope they will see that they’re not powerless – even when facing a massive environmental problem. Because every action makes a difference. And it feels a whole lot better to stand up and get involved, than to sit back and watch.
What is your favorite part of the book?
The illustrations! With someone as talented as Maribel Lechuga creating Sam’s emotions and capturing the urgency of the moment and style of the era, can there really be any other answer? When we learned that Maribel had signed on to bring our story to life, we were absolutely over the moon. Who isn’t a fan of the gorgeous scenery and heart packed into Ten Beautiful Things? Or the crashing waves and simple joy in Seaside Stroll? With each new set of illustrations from Maribel, we had to pinch ourselves as we watched Sam’s world and arc take shape. We're also really happy with how the story itself came together. There were so many different pieces to the Earth Day origin story puzzle, and it was far from obvious how they would all fit – particularly at the start of the process. In the end though, we hope we were able to create a way for readers to experience a unique moment in history. A moment when a wave of people across the United States realized their actions were harming the planet, and instead of pretending that it wasn’t happening, chose to stand up and say: Enough! We need to start protecting the Earth!
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
The power to act is within us all. No matter your age, no matter your size, you can make a difference by standing up for the Earth. And even when faced with a bad situation, something new and positive can come from it. Take the environmental activists from 1970. They had no idea that over half a century later, people in virtually every country in the world would still be celebrating Earth Day and working together to protect the planet. When it came down to it, they didn’t even know if anyone at all would come out for the first Earth Day! But they worked hard, went ahead with their plans, and 20 million people across the United States stood up for the environment that April. Real change quickly followed – with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act all being passed into law by 1973 (plus the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency). Meaningful change happened on a consciousness level, too. In the wake of disasters like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, it became a lot more difficult for people to pretend that their actions weren’t having an effect on the environment.
Fifty years later, it feels like a similar sea change may once again be taking place. Climate change-related disasters are happening everywhere around the globe – but just like in 1969, these crises aren’t the end of the story. With movements like Fridays for Future continuing to grow, youth-led actions are once again driving real change in the face of environmental adversity. Building on the efforts of those who came before, activists today are more inclusive and striving to take into account prior shortcomings like environmental justice. And once again, politicians are starting to pay attention. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the U.S. Congress authorized billions of dollars to promote clean energy and combat climate change. Like Sam and her friends, it feels like more and more people in power are no longer choosing to look past environmental problems. Which is a good thing – because there’s still a whole lot more work to do!
We also hope that readers are able to take away some key points from the back matter at the end of the book. When writing an environmental story, there are so many things you want to include because there are so many different issues that matter! As a result, we had to make some difficult cuts – there simply wasn’t enough space to discuss specific concepts like the ins-and-outs of climate change or the pros and cons of carbon footprints. Instead, we chose to provide a bit more information on the events surrounding the first Earth Day and how the movement has progressed throughout the years. We also wanted to convey a core belief of ours – that there should be as few barriers as possible to becoming an environmental activist. In working to put together a list of ten ways for a kid to get started, we quickly realized you could write an entire book! Eat less meat. Write to your representatives. Shop second-hand. The list goes on and on. Hopefully the ten we ultimately selected offer easy and accessible entry points for new eco-activists to take their first step in a lifelong journey of being a steward for the Earth.
What’s next for you two?
We’re focused on seeing our book enter the world and doing our best to help spread its inspiring message throughout the United States. We seriously can’t wait to get in front of kids and start reading! And in exciting news, the foreign rights are beginning to sell as well, with Black Beach set to publish in the coming years in multiple countries across the globe (check out our news page to learn more). Educators, parents, and booksellers can reach out to us on our contact page, Instagram @johnandshaunnawrite, or Twitter @johnandshaunna. We hope to hear from you soon!