Black Beach: A Community, An Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day

Illustrated by Maribel Lechuga

“The more Sam learned, the more powerful she felt. There were so many ways to help!”

It’s January 1969. Sam is in the classroom, drawing a picture of her favorite place: the Santa Barbara beach. Later that day she is devastated when her parents tell her of an oil spill near the beach. A Union Oil rig caused a blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel, ruining her favorite spot, the beach and ocean. The people in Sam’s town work together to clean the oil off the beach and water, but Sam feels lost on how to help. As the scale of the environmental disaster is revealed and reaches audiences across the country, Sam becomes determined to help the ocean. She and her classmates write letters to politicians to spread the word about the catastrophe. News eventually reaches Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who works to organize a “national day of environmental celebration and protest”, or Earth Day. The last 6 openings illustrate the actions that followed on the national and local levels. Senator Nelson and his team help create a grassroots environmental movement to pressurize politicians to pay attention to the environment. Sam, her classmates, and teachers prepare their own activities, lessons, and projects. In 1970 Earth Day became a national day in schools where students can learn about the Earth and how to help it. The last opening shows Sam and her friends on the beach, drawing signs. “There was still more work to do, and Sam and her friends were just getting started.” The book ends with 3 openings of supplementary information: the Author’s Note, Bibliography, Timeline, Earth Day Today, and a page on “How to Become an Environmental Activist.”

Black Beach: A Community, An Oil Spill, and the Origin of Earth Day brings together two stories: one is the origin of Earth Day and of the modern environmental movement (see environmental legislation, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Agency, Gaylord Nelson). The other is a first person’s account of an environmental disaster that transforms Sam into a youth activist. The Union Oil’s 1969 blowout—the third largest oil spill in US history after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez spills—which polluted the ocean and demolished Santa Barbara’s beach ecosystems helped catalyze nationwide public support for environmental protection (see nature, conservation). In the book this is shown when Sam’s community comes together to restore their beaches (see regeneration). The power of collective action is represented by everyone participating in different ways: soaking up oil in the water, cleaning the oil from the beaches, helping animals that were saturated in oil, etc. On a national level, collective action is shown as effective when led by visionary political leaders such as Gaylord Nelson, whose efforts empower grassroots environmentalism, the creation of Earth Day, and the passing of flagship environmental legislation (see systems care). The book helps explore the consequences of oil spills and oil pollution. It can spark conversations around fossil fuels, nonrenewable resources, and the negative impact of pollution and extractivism on the environment. By showing how children in the community help out in the cleaning, by learning about the environment in school, and by political activism like writing letters to politicians, the book promotes forms of collective environmental activism that students are able to relate to. For example, Sam’s character represents many children who experienced a climate or environmental disaster in their community for the first time. Although the book does not explicitly engage with climate change, its environmental message is powerful and lends itself to conversations about the issues and causes of global warming, pollution, and ways to help the environment. Black Beach gives hope that through activism and community, positive changes can happen to our world. The story shows students learning to recycle, methods to live sustainably, learning about ecosystems, composting, and picking up litter. These are all activities that can be incorporated into the classroom as an Earth Day activity, but also as general practice for students.

©2024 ClimateLit (anonymous student, with edits by Marek Oziewicz)


Publisher: Little Bee Books, 2023

Pages: 40

ISBN: 978-1499813043

Audience: Ages 4-7, Ages 8-13

Format: Picturebooks

Topics: Activism, Beach Ecosystems, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Clean-up Operations, Climate Action, Climate Crisis, Collective Climate Action, Composting, Conservation, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Earth Care, Earth Day, Ecosystems, Endangered Species Act, Environmental Disaster, Environmental Law, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Environmentalism, Extractivism, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Fossil Fuels, Gaylord Nelson, Global Warming, Grassroots Activism, Marine Pollution, Nature, Nonrenewable Resources, Oceans, Oil Rig Blowout, Oil Spills, Pollution, Protection, Recycling, Regeneration, Santa Barbara Oil Spill, Sustainability, Trash, Youth Climate Activism