A Recycling Superhero

July 27th, 2012 by Ilene Goldman

This series of children’s books just might make the world a better place.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Wouldn’t it be lovely if a superhero came along to clean up litter, clear out smog and save the world from all that threatens our environment? Rather than battle one person bent on terrorizing the world, our new superhero would show us all how to combat the evil we do, sometimes unwittingly, as we go about our day.

That’s what Ellie Patterson thought as she read her way through piles of manuscripts at her children’s publishing job in London. And in 2009, “Michael Recycle” was born, arriving in the U.S. in time for Earth Day. A “green-caped crusader,” Michael is on a one-boy mission to teach people how to protect the earth from trash, pollution and over-production. Writing in lilting rhyme, British author Patterson created a truly 21st century hero who battles not a single, evil nemesis, but takes on the problems of the world. His optimism and can-do attitude appeal to elementary school children, and Patterson’s language makes for a rollicking read-aloud. 

In 2010, Michael returned to face Litterbug Doug, who eventually became Michael’s ally. And in 2011 Michael saved Christmas when he taught Santa’s elves to make toys and gifts from recycled products rather than continuing to use wood and plastic. This past spring, Michael was back again to save the Redwood Forest from deforestation. This time he had to convince Celine and Delphine, “Queens of the fashion and magazine scene,” to print their magazines on recycled paper. 

What inspired Michael Recycle as a character?

Patterson: I was working in children’s publishing when I came up with the idea. I saw lots of manuscripts with superheroes overcoming challenges. They were always battling a nemesis, an evil personified. But it wasn’t anything interesting. I thought there might be a different way to look at it, a superhero whose challenge was not another super-evil-hero, but the world itself.

The name came quite easily: I was looking for a theme and came up with recycling. Then, what rhymes with recycle? Not much. Michael. Thus, Michael Recycle. 

You knew that you wanted to write in rhyme?

Yes. I grew up on rhyming books, like Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes.” I think for children rhyme is the best way to learn something; learning by rote really sinks in and becomes deeply a part of the learning process. 

Also, my mother is Scottish. She learned ballads by heart at school and she used to recite them to me. I was greatly influenced by that. Rhyming was a very natural choice for me.

What made you decide to continue Michael Recycle into a series?

Originally, I didn’t expect the series to be so successful. I thought it important that Michael beat his nemesis, as all superheroes have to. Then, because my publisher in America [IDW] is a comic book publisher, it seemed rather natural to think of Michael as a strong character at the center of a comic book series. 

Michael strikes out against publishing in “Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops,” addressing the fact that magazines use millions of trees to print regularly. How did you balance your environmentalism with speaking out against your own industry?
I started in magazine publishing and I found it to be a throwaway society or culture. It frustrated me even then that there was such huge circulation and the magazines might get thrown away the very next day.

When I moved into book publishing, I saw that it is slightly different. A book is something that you cherish and keep forever. Yes, it is paper and it is not so good for the environment, but it is not a throwaway thing. It’s a luxury, something to hold dear.
I did ask for the books to be printed on recycled paper initially. That wasn’t possible. I know it is preaching to have such strong feeling and not give anything back. I visit schools, but I also want to give something back eventually. For the next book, I’ve teamed up with a charity and a third of the proceeds will go to that charity.

What is next for Michael?

The next book will be in collaboration with The Environmental Justice Foundation. It is set in the Seven Seas. Michael will tackle pirate-fishers off the coast of Sierra Leone raising awareness about illegal fishing. Children love pirates, so I think it will be a big hit. We’ll be donating one-third of the net profits to The Environmental Justice Foundation’s anti-pirate-fishing campaign.

What is your favorite Earth Day activity?

Funny, we don’t have Earth Day in the U.K. Maybe we should introduce Earth Day over here!

Ilene S. Goldman is a freelance writer and film scholar. She blogs regularly at Charlotte’s Journey Home and Culture Bean.