'A Children's Bible' Shows How Not to Parent During a Climate Crisis (Book Review)

In Lydia Millett's new novel, children rise to the occasion when their parents fail.

boy sitting alone on stormy beach

Getty Images/da-kuk

I read two books last week. One was work-related, a non-fiction guide to talking to children about climate change. (You can read my review here.) The other was a novel for my own enjoyment, "A Children's Bible" by Lydia Millett, that I'd seen on a New York Times list of top new books.

What I wasn't expecting was for the two books to talk about the same issue – the parent-child relationship in the face of climate breakdown – but from such totally different perspectives. Of course, one account was fictionalized and the other not, but Millett's story was so powerful and horrifying that I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I finished reading. (Be forewarned: There are spoiler alerts ahead.)

Millett's novel starts out in a seaside cottage in the eastern United States, where several families are spending the summer together. The parents and children live mostly separate lives, the children allowed to engage in glorious free-range behaviors. They have a multi-day campout on a beach and play in the forest and paddle boats without adult supervision. It is quite delightful (aside from the usual child rivalries), until the weather shifts and things start to fall apart.

A Children's Bible book cover


This is the point at which the reader realizes that the impending climate crisis is starting to hit. It's the beginning of the end, the tipping point from which there is no return, and all people can do is hunker down and hope for the best.

The narrator is an eerily mature teenage girl named Eve who's looking out for her little brother Jack, a precocious child who carries around an illustrated children's Bible. Early in the novel she struggles with how to tell him about the climate crisis, because her parents have neglected to do so and she knows time is running out.

"Politicians claimed everything would be fine. Adjustments were being made. Much as our human ingenuity had got us into this fine mess, so would it neatly get us out. Maybe more cars would switch to electric. That was how we could tell it was serious. Because they were obviously lying."

Eve relives her own memories of realizing what's going on, and the deep betrayal she felt when she realized that her parents weren't going to fight for the planet. In fact, they preferred living in a state of denial. When she was seven and asked them about protesters in the streets:

"It doesn't matter, they said. I pestered them. I wouldn't let it go. They could read the signs. They were tall enough. But they flatly refused to tell me. Be quiet, they said. They were late for a dinner appointment. Reservations at that place were impossible to get."

So it is up to her to break the news to her little brother on summer vacation. She does so just in time, a day before the storms hit. He is deeply shaken, but he accepts it courageously, and that's when the story really starts to pick up speed. The adults prove to be incompetent in coping with the extreme weather, paralyzed by a mixture of addiction and fear, so the children are forced to fend for themselves. They rise to the occasion, caring for each other and problem-solving to the best of their abilities, their experiences imitating many of the Old Testament stories in Jack's Bible. 

By the end of the book, the kids are fully in charge, ensuring the adults' survival by building a protected compound, hydroponic gardens, renewal energy, and more. The adults are useless, attempting to connect with the outside world using their devices, and – most profoundly – remaining stubbornly out of touch with their own children, who could benefit from their assistance.

"At times a parent would forget to eat for several meals running. Some of them let themselves get dirty and began to smell. Some floated in the pool on blow-up rafts for hours, even though it was cold outside, listening to music and speaking to nobody. One threw a tantrum and smashed her bathroom mirror with a crowbar."

The children concoct plans to pull the parents out of their dark depression. They play games and lead them in group physical exercise. 

"We injected false cheer. We had bouts of hysteria, trying to rouse them from their lethargy. Days of exhaustion and embarrassment. Our antics were ridiculous. It did no good. We felt a kind of desperation, then ... For our whole lives, we'd been so used to them. But they were slowly detaching."

What hit me hardest was the anger, bordering on disgust, that those children felt at their parents' complacency, lethargy, and ineptitude. Those kids had no choice but to forge onward, doing what they should never have had to do, while the parents chose the easy road out, which was simply to fade away, their contributions from a former life no longer relevant to the dystopia that had replaced it. 

I never want to be that kind of parent to my own children. It got me thinking about the other book I was reading at the same time, on speaking to kids about climate change. "A Children's Bible" could almost called "How Not to Speak to Your Kids about Climate Change" (an inversion of the non-fiction book I read), because it's an example of what happens when parents refuse to acknowledge what's going on or assume their children are too weak to cope with the impending crisis. Our children and grandchildren, whether we like it or not, will have to face this, and we can either be inept fools like the parents in the book, or we can make their job a bit easier by modeling resilient behaviors and facing the problem head-on.