In the wake of our newest spotlight series: Turning the Tide: The Youngest Generation, I was so happy to read Todd Mitchell’s fantastic children’s book–for ages nine and up–The Last Panther (Penguin Random House, 2019). Todd and I talked about his endearing novel, set in future Florida.
About The Last Panther
When eleven-year-old Kiri helps her scientist father capture the last known wild panther, her life in her Florida swamp becomes threatened by poachers, and she must embark on a dangerous journey to save both the panther and herself. Giant sea turtles, climate refugees, and mystical encounters with the Shadow that Hunts populate this fast-paced, heart-pounding tale.
“BRILLIANT! A boldly original, profoundly wise, deeply moving book. It’s a rare gift to any reader, as well as to our planet.” —T. A. Barron, author of the Merlin Saga
“A powerful tale.” —Kirkus
“Told in vivid, heartbreaking detail and filled with strong, developed characters…tackles an important theme in a compelling way.” —Booklist
“Difficult to put down. An important addition on a timely subject.” —SLJ
“Earnest, heartfelt, and passionate, this book will likely inspire new environmentalists.” —Bulletin
A Chat with Todd
Mary: I want to talk a little about your past and what led you to become an author and teacher. When you were six, you planted an evergreen tree and when you left for college, how tall was it? Can you tell us more about this early childhood of nature-loving and how it led to where you’re at now?
Todd: I grew up in a cornfield in Illinois. My parents weren’t farmers, but they had one of the first houses built in a cornfield development outside of DeKalb (home of the flying ear of corn!).
People tend to think that growing up in a farming area means growing up in nature. The reality is that it’s more like growing up on a factory floor. I spent a lot of time in the cornfields and in a nearby graveyard wishing we had trees or a forest to play in. Instead, there was just corn for as far as you could see in nearly every direction. To change this, when I was six years old I planted an evergreen tree in our back yard, and I thought of it as my spirit tree (grow little tree!).
The only cool thing about growing up in an exceptionally flat, boring cornfield is that it made me feel like I was Luke Skywalker growing up on his Tatooine desert farm. Jedis and mystics often come from flat, boring, apparently empty places where there isn’t a lot going on. I’d add writers to this list, too, since I think one of the main reasons I became a writer is because there wasn’t much to do where I grew up. To entertain myself I spent most of my time making up stories. When my head filled up and I couldn’t remember more stories, I learned to write them down.
As for the evergreen tree I planted behind my house, by the time I went to college it was about twenty feet tall and wide as a dinner plate around the base (go spirit!). Two years later, a tornado touched down in our back yard and ripped the whole tree out. That evergreen was never seen again.
I was studying abroad in Ireland when this happened. At first I thought, “Spirit tree swept up by a tornado? That’s a bad sign.” Then I saw it a different way: maybe my spirit was now free to live anywhere it wanted to. Since then, I’ve been to all 50 states, I’ve lived in several of them, and I’ve steered clear of cornfields.
Mary: I can relate, having grown up around cornfields myself! Let’s talk about your newest novel The Last Panther. The main character is Kiri. She is eleven and wants to help her dad catch the last known wild panther. This leads to a dangerous journey but also a memorable adventure. Your daughter helped to write this. What was the process like?
Todd: This was the most enjoyable novel writing process I’ve ever experienced. Normally, I’m struggling in the basement typing out scenes alone while doubting everything I create. With The Last Panther, I focused on creating the sort of book my ten-year-old daughter would love.
I structured the book to address some of the things she cares about most (like species extinction, climate change, and inequality). Then I read each chapter to her at night, got her feedback on what she liked and what she thought could be better, and revised the chapters using her suggestions.
A great deal changed in the story as I did this. Initially, I worried that the story might be too dark or difficult for young readers, but my wise daughter (who’s been a vegetarian since she was old enough to speak, and convinced me to become a vegetarian too) told me that, “You need the dark parts to make the light parts bright.” Then she told me to give Kiri a pet rat named Snowflake that she could share her deepest fears and hopes with. I added Snowflake in, and the little rat became a major character (see if you can spot him on the cover image).
I ended up reading the book to my daughter twice and revising it each time with her feedback in mind. She taught me never to underestimate young readers. They’re more aware than I think many writers give them credit for, and they’re hungry for stories that can help them address the considerable challenges they’re inheriting.
Mary: I love it that your daughter cares about these things at a young age and was able to help you so much.
The novel takes place in futuristic Florida. There’s a lot going on, including climate refugees, a mystical and timeless feel to the story, and a strong environmental ethic. There’s also a sect of people known as the Wallers, who are wealthy and love building walls around themselves to keep out that which they fear. This reflects today’s society as well and gives us a sense of where we’re headed. How did you imagine this future?
Todd: I have family in Florida and have traveled there nearly every year for over 40 years. I’ve seen Florida change significantly during that time, and those changes are now accelerating. As I was writing The Last Panther, I spent time in Kiri’s swamp—a gorgeous area with cypress trees, crystal clear water, Spanish moss swaying from the branches, beautiful orchids, and some of the few remaining wild Florida panthers. Every time I wrote a scene set in Kiri’s swamp, I pictured this very special real place. Then, as I was revising the book, a record-breaking hurricane season hit Florida. Trees in Kiri’s swamp were blown over, the area was flooded, and several buildings there were destroyed.
The point is, when I started The Last Panther, I was imagining a future that might be 100-150 years down the road. But as I revised the manuscript, I realized that a Florida ravaged by storms, flooding, and climate change could arrive much sooner than we think.
The same goes for the Wallers who live in walled-off cities in the book. When I was writing, I imagined a far-off hyperbolic dystopian future. But as I finished copy edits, Donald Trump started leading chants of “Build that wall,” and I realized that a future where people try to wall themselves off and deny their connection to others, and their connection to the greater ecosystems upon which they depend, could also be closer than I thought.
Mary: To go along with the last question, what is modern Florida like these days, and what do you think are some of its primary environmental concerns?
Todd: The climate crisis is already impacting Florida in dramatic ways. Flooding due to sea level rise and increased storms is now a regular occurrence in major coastal cities like Miami. I’ve also seen houses on beaches I’ve visited my whole life fall into the ocean over the past couple of years.
The impacts of the climate crisis go well beyond coastal flooding, though. Around 90% of coral reefs in the Caribbean have died over the past few years due to coral bleaching caused by increased temperatures and increased pollution. Harmful algal blooms (that are directly related to climate change and pollution) have also significantly increased. These have poisoned some of the rivers and coastal areas where my family lives. And as temperatures increase, so do things like the spread of tropical diseases (such as Zika), increased flooding, increased wildfires, increased species extinctions, and a whole range of other negative impacts. Some days, it seems downright apocalyptic.
But nature is also extraordinarily resilient. Recently, I read a story about a giant leatherback turtle nesting on a Florida beach where leatherbacks hadn’t been seen for several decades (just like in The Last Panther).
The more we deny the climate crisis, the worse it gets. Still, I’m optimistic about the future, because many people are already working in Florida and around the world to create the positive changes we need. Human caused problems have human solutions, and we already have the technology we need to stop the climate crisis. What’s necessary now is the will to do so. I’m hopeful that people are starting to wake up to the advantages of acting to create the future we want to live in.
Mary: The Last Panther is loved by readers of all ages, and teachers are including it in their lesson plans. You also have a teaching and book club kit on your website, with activities. And it seems that you visit schools as well. What kinds of feedback have you gotten from children and teachers? Can you tell us more? Maybe some of your favorite experiences?
Todd: One of my favorite activities to go along with The Last Panther is a debate activity that a Florida teacher designed and sent me (it’s available on The Last Panther Teaching and Book Club page).
My favorite feedback comes from young readers who’ve told me how the book inspired them to be like Kiri, and act to protect some of the creatures they love. A few of these young protectors have sent me stories and pictures of what they’ve done —like this one from Peter the snake protector, who’s working to relocate and protect unwanted snakes in his neighborhood.
Mary: Simply amazing. Are you working on anything else?
Todd: Recently, I finished a steampunk fairytale book about rainforest destruction that just got optioned for TV or film development. It’s my hope that a publisher will want to publish this manuscript soon, because it’s a story I’m eager to share with people, and because rainforest destruction is an issue that desperately needs more attention. I’m currently working on a much different YA book about a future dominated by artificial intelligence, warring robots, and genetically engineered dragons.
Whether either of these books gets published (or made into a big budget film) is dependent on how my current books do. So, if you think that books that raise environmental consciousness are important, please show publishers that there’s a demand for such books by supporting and spreading the word about them. Stories shape the way we think and act. Supporting stories that help people (especially young people) think more environmentally is a powerful way to make a lasting difference.
Mary: Thanks so much, Todd. I think you’re making a huge difference.
About the Author
Todd Mitchell is the author of several award-winning books for young readers and teens including The Last Panther (2018 Colorado Book Award Winner and Green Earth Honor Book Award winner), The Traitor King, The Secret to Lying (Colorado Book Award Winner), and Backwards (CAL Award Winner). He created the graphic series Broken Saviors (available on Comixology) and co-wrote the graphic novel A Flight of Angels (Vertigo, a YALSA “Top 10 Great Graphic Novels for Teens”). Currently, he serves as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife, dog, and two wise daughters. You can visit him (and learn about his squirrel obsession) at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com.