Turning research into fairy tale goldust. An interview with the creators of “Once Upon the Future”

Marie Curie Alumni Association
9 min readJan 15, 2021

Can research be turned into stories for children? Can Early Stage Researchers create a children’s book while working on their fellowships? And is sustainability research all about apocalyptic scenarios for a gloomy future?

The answers are yes, yes, and no! Six fellows of the SUSPLACE project, working on place-based sustainability research, decided to talk about their work directly to those who will bring about a brighter future: children! Two years later, their book “Once Upon the Future — everyday adventures that change the world” is ready to get published by Babidi-bú. The book is an anthology of six adventure stories on sustainability and hope, inspired by their different research projects, and illustrated beautifully by Rita Reis.

What was their journey like? What inspired, frustrated, and helped them get there? In this short interview, four of its creators, Angela Moriggi, Marta Nieto Romero, Kelli Rose Pearson, and Alessandro Vasta shared some experiences and snippets of wisdom.

The authors at the Bologna children’s book fair 2019 (Clockwise from up right corner: Lorena, Alessandro, Angela, Anastasia, Marta and Kelli)

Why did you choose to make a children’s book and not engage with a more traditional form of science communication, like a talk, an article, or a policy brief?

Alessandro: Around half-way through our SUSPLACE timeline, we had a meeting where we were asked to try and develop some objectives and output, and one of them was about communication. We brainstormed together with the whole SUSPLACE group and many ideas came out. Some were more conventional (presentations, workshops, and posters) but then one idea got my attention, to write children stories! After much time exploring and understanding the academic publishing world, its jargon and “ivory tower” constraints, I found ease and comfort in trying to communicate to a different audience, one that is our future, and to stimulate their thoughts towards changing our current un-sustainable patterns. The idea of using “simpler” language because of the reader’s young age made me think it would be easier to write, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Angela: For many of us, this project was one of many science communication commitments. It’s not like we wrote a children’s book rather than engaging in a public talk, a popular article, or a policy brief. We’ve been doing all of these throughout our careers, as we are convinced that science must have an impact on society, and only by speaking different languages we can achieve different audiences. This being said, Once Upon the Future has been, at least for me, the most original science communication effort I’ve ever embarked on. It has required a great leap of faith (to do something completely new), and I’ve had to embrace a continuously learning journey on so many levels — one I will never forget!

Kelli: Stories shape our understanding of the world and “storytelling,” as Hannah Arendt said, “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” A part of the theory underlying my research is about how imagination, metaphors, and cognitive frames shape how people think about and act in the world. Writing a children’s story was a great chance to put theory directly into practice and distill the core meaning of my research into metaphorical language. And, most important, it was fun! Such a delight to access and explore that childlike place of wonder and imagination.

How did you decide what to write about? How does your research fit into the story?

Kelli: Part of my research is about leadership towards more just and ecological societies and how we can think about important issues with an expanded sense of time and more empathy for others (human and non-human) and how we can cope with uncertainty and complexity. So, my story The Legend of the Cosmos Mariners was a way of fleshing out my concept of leadership through a mythical lens. The Cosmos Mariners are a secret society of artists, scientists, and lovers of life who are dedicated to bringing beauty, truth, and deep kindness to the world. The idea was inspired by all the heroic everyday people and leaders around the world and by Paul Hawkins book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. He says: “If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.”

Marta: It was quite difficult to translate my research findings into a children story! I researched people commoning forests and I wanted to speak about interdependence, talking about how humans need other humans and also other non-humans to survive. Yet, that is a complex concept to convey, especially if you don’t want to be didactical! I think it all started with Aia, one of the main characters of my story. Aia is a little oak who sprouts within a eucalypti plantation and feels alone without connections to other trees…Until she’s found by a girl, Bruna, who also feels alone at home and at school. From then on, I started writing about their adventures together with lots of free writing, peer-to-peer feedback, and support from our storytelling trainers.

Alessandro: The challenge of writing a children story was coupled by the difficult decision to choose which issue of my research I would try to convey. I wanted it to be simple and not too confusing. My research was through participatory action and I was able to contribute towards revitalization of rural areas through innovative ways to preserve tradition. I think the issues that shine through the most are the appreciation of traditions and rural areas, and the importance and negative impacts of fast fashion. I feel that these issues are what, in my view, the younger generation have a chance to contrast already in their young age and change the mindset towards a more sustainable one… Jamie, the character of my story, embodies the stereotype of the big city kid that is obsessed with fast fashion, a common trend I see in the youth around me today.

Living Spaceship Earth. Illustration by Rita Reis for the story The Legend of the Cosmos Mariners

What was the hardest part of writing your story or making the book?

Marta: To start writing! I wanted to know what would go on the page before starting writing so it took me a long time to actually have the right words for encounters, conversations, etc…Then, when I started, I couldn’t stop writing, it was like my hands knew what was going to happen, but my brain didn’t! I got surprised by the process and the story kept going on, as I got more confident in writing…I even cried with the last scene! I really enjoyed those intense weeks, and the process helped me for paper writing too.

Alessandro: The hardest part of writing the story has been making the plot enticing while at the same time getting important issues across. As well as thinking and using creative, vivid, and descriptive language which proved to be challenging at the beginning, as very different from academic writing. What really helped was to have followed the “Hero’s journey” method for character development and basic storyline learned through one of our workshops for creative writing. At times I found myself with very long sentences and page long details, searching for the best adjective to describe the color red! This really helped in getting the creative juices flowing, but needed to then be shortened and simplified.

Kelli: For me, the biggest challenge was to edit, edit, edit, and edit again. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and when something is just not quite working in terms of voice and pacing, it bothers me like an itch. Also, in the midst of all the ‘real world’ pressures and political chaos of the last few years (in the USA in my case), it was challenging to make time to allow myself to enter into a wonder-filled child-like mindstate. At same time, the imaginative world of creative writing also became my refuge.

What else has the process taught you? Do you think it has made you a better researcher?

Angela: My story, Alma in the Woods, is about Alma and Helio, two children who manage to save an endangered forest from destruction by finding a rare plant. The process of writing made me realize how difficult it is to convey complicated messages in a simple and fun way. I hope it indirectly enhanced my communication abilities! On the other hand, I think the most important lesson I learnt from this project is the power of co-creation and of doing things collectively. Many times research forces us to act individually, and can get very lonely. This project was truly bottom-up: as a group we had to fight to get the initial funding, and still now we are doing everything from scratch, in managing our Kickstarter campaign in all its aspects (something none of us had done before). Each stage of the process of writing and curating the book has been discussed, designed, and managed as a team. This was certainly very challenging at times, but it was also incredibly enriching. In this sense, I feel like I am a better researcher now.

Kelli: I certainly crystalized many of the disparate threads of my research through the writing process, such as how I conceptualize leadership for sustainability and the power of metaphors to describe reality in a sticky, powerful, world-view shaping way. In Legend of the Cosmos Mariners, the image I painted of Hungry Ghosts devouring the world still haunts me (they are derived from the buddhist concept). Also, it made the reality and consequences of eco-anxiety more vivid to me. In the backstory of the main character, he has gone from actively caring about the world when he was younger, to numbness and denial because of all the fear and sadness he experiences. Writing this story helped me envision and articulate a way out of that numbness and back into action; not necessarily to a state of hope, but into a kind of heartfelt commitment.

Do you have any advice, tips, or resources to share with other fellows that may have similar projects and dreams?

Kelli: First, I found it helpful to re-read some of my favorite middle grade stories in order to get into a child-like state of mind. I love A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for example. Also, everything Roald Dahl to keep my humor a bit sharp and wicked (I wish I had more of that gift!). Learning about the basics of the hero and heroine’s journey, watching every Ted Talk on storytelling, and following online Master Classes was very helpful. Phllip Pullman’s book about writing, Daemon Voices was inspiring and intellectually satisfying. Read everything you can about character development and story arc, and then get into technical details about writing such as show don’t tell, eliminating filter words, voice, point of view, etc (that you can read about in many blogs on writing fiction). Probably the most important thing for me, however, was having regular meetings with our inspiring writing coaches and our story team writing circle, a lovely cohort made up of smart, kind, creative people.

Marta: For me it was absolutely necessary to know about the story arc. Basically, this gives you the building blocks of a story. Personally, this was really reassuring and also inspiring. There’s lots of books out there about this; The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Writer’s Journey are two of the classics. Also Pixar has a free online storytelling course which we found quite useful. From then on, what I’d really suggest is to start by thinking of a character or a first scene and start writing what happens next, who appears, what they tell each other when they meet…The story won’t come to your mind until you start to write it down, at least for me.

The book’s provisionary cover. Illustrations by Rita Reis.

The book is due to appear this spring, but you can already pre-purchase a copy and support the fundraising campaign (that Kickstarter awarded with the “Projects We Love” badge), by donating or spreading the word!

@uponfuture, #Future, #projectwelove

Author bio: Anastasia Papangelou, a former research fellow with the SUSPLACE project, is currently finishing up her PhD at KU Leuven on food and the circular economy. She’s also an improviser, and one of the co-creators of Once Upon the Future but tried to keep her journalistic integrity while preparing this post. She obviously failed.



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