Alan Hesse Makes Learning Fun With Captain Polo
Children are often difficult to teach because their attention span and minds can race at a thousand miles per hour. One minute you are conversing with them, the next thing you know they get distracted by something else. It can be difficult to write about a book about climate change that might keep kids entertained. That’s where this edition’s spotlight comes in. This is where we meet Alan Hesse.
Hesse has a very diverse background and grew up around various parts of the world, and is currently living in Ecuador. It has helped him create visually stunning work, both as a writer and an illustrator.
“I always try to make these settings as accurate as possible, both graphically and culturally,” using my illustrations and dialogues,” he explained. “I also like to include native languages in my dialogues where possible, even using non-Latin alphabets.”
Hesse uses his background to write about an important subject, with the focus being on human-induced climate change.
“Since childhood, I knew I wanted to work with nature somehow, and I became a conservation biologist,” he stated. “I use my technical knowledge of the natural world and distill it through my comic books to hopefully provide an alternate, more accessible, and fun learning medium for kids as well as adults.”
For Hesse, he writes books specifically targeted to the younger generation as comic books.
“I believe that when learning is fun, it is also more effective,” he said. “As a high school kid, I once had an economics class that involved a very surprising textbook. The book was called ‘Obelix and Co.’, one of the masterpieces making up the Asterix the Gaul comic books that are legendary in Europe and many other countries around the world.”
He recalled an important lesson he learned about the fundamental principles of economics, and how they shaped our consumer-based society. Hesse pointed out that he learned that lesson because it came from a comic book, and that was the initial origin of his idea to use the platform.
His main book trilogy features a character called Captain Polo, who is a polar bear that deals with climate change in a fashion that makes it both fun and educational.
“Back in 2016 or so, when I first got the idea for this series, I was trying to understand climate change myself in a professional context,” he told me. “I found it all quite overwhelming, confusing, and really scary. I decided to create the series to get past that, learn about the subject that is now widely recognized to be the defining factor of our very future, an existential crisis beyond any that humanity has ever seen in all of our long history.”
To go about this, he created a comic book series and felt it would be a great way to learn more about the subject while also dissuading youth from falling for the misinformation that is out in the world.
“If kids and adults know the fundamental facts about the climate crisis and also perceive that there are solutions, some of them based on the transformational change as a society, I think we have a better chance of getting out of this and building a far, far better world. That is the driving factor behind my Captain Polo comic books.”
It took Hesse one year of research to help create the books. He underwent a vigorous amount of time conducting studies on the topic, while also interviewing many experts in the field.
“I am lucky enough to have a network of professional connections that touches upon many aspects related to climate change,” he said. “One of my brothers works directly in an area of climate change too. All of these sources helped me do my research and also make sure of my facts. Some were kind enough to also write an editorial review of my books, and if you look at the list of those, you’ll see some pretty high-profile professionals participated”
Captain Polo, Hesse would explain, came about because he believed most people knew about polar bears and that this animal was the poster child for climate change. He emphasized that kids liked bears, finding that they can be cuddly and cute.
“Polar bears are easy to draw,” he added. “Once I decided on my character, I wrote out his persona, like a description of his character, what he believes in, what he likes, and dislikes, his character. This was really helpful throughout the book creation process because it shaped every expression on his face in every situation, as well as his speech and interactions with other characters. After defining who Captain Polo is, I just went right ahead and started the artwork.”
Coming up with the name of the character was not as easy as the storytelling. Hesse explained that his original name for the character was ‘Polo the Bear’ but then changed it to Captain Polo after realizing that ‘Polo Bear’ was already a trademark by the clothing company Ralph Lauren.
“I made the change to defuse any potential conflict down the road when Captain Polo becomes as famous as I am working to make him,” he told me. “The story I tell for making that change is that when Polo returns at the end of Book 3 from his world adventure, famous with the press, governments, and celebrities, the native Inuit of his homeland take an interest and have him undergo a naming ceremony. They name him ‘nanuq’, which means ‘captain of the seas’, in virtue of his journey and mastership of sailing, navigation, and ocean travel. Not wanting to confuse his fans, Polo now calls himself ‘Captain Polo’, as a reflection of his Inuit name. This makes sense because polar bears have a very special place in many Nordic people’s cosmovision, where the species is revered.”
Now came the tough part. He had to ensure that kids actively partook in the comic books and learned something from them.
“It’s a balance I am always experimenting with because the last thing I want is to create another textbook,” said Hesse. “I want my books to be funny, fun, exciting, and also intriguing, thought-provoking, even inspirational. I want them to spark discussions, get readers thinking, looking into some of the side subjects I explore on their own to learn more. It is a very delicate equation. So far my solution is to mix up the fiction with the non-fiction, both as separate sequences as well as together in the same sequences.”
Hesse is currently hoping to explore secondary characters next and see if they could branch off into their own books. While the Captain Polo series is currently available on Amazon, Hesse has bigger goals over the next few years.
“ I want to grow my climate change series, keeping up with the trends and patterns of thought on the subject around the world. Not just from a northern/western perspective but also from that of the developing world, where 46 countries (known as the ‘Least Developed Countries’, or LDC) for example are considered to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming.”
Hesse knows that his generation differs from the current generation and has to keep that balance when creating stories.
“If you write for younger readers, don’t get blinded by content YOU think is cool. I struggle with this myself. At age 51, I am from a generation whose idea of fun and humour is quite different to what today’s kids are into.”