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Twelve-year-old Aika Tsubota and her mother stood outside and gazed up at the night sky. Where they lived, in the remote town of Shimane in western Japan, few streetlights interfered with the light from the stars. Tonight, Aika could see the Milky Way, which looked like thousands of grains of shining sand flung across the sky

Aika stared at the stars for a long time. Then she turned to her mother and said, "I feel big -- like the universe. It's as though I'm one with it."

Indeed, Aika felt a special connection with the universe, Earth, and all life. A tall, healthy girl, she loved walking through the woods, exploring the different faces of nature. She had a special interest in history and often asked her father to take her to ancient burial grounds, where she spent hours studying monuments and inscriptions. She expressed her love for the world in her hearty laugh and, in particular, through her art.

Aika began drawing when she was two years old. By the age of five, she was studying art books and copying the cartoon figures from comic books. Soon, she began creating her own characters and stories, making her own comic books, and sharing them with her delighted classmates.

As she grew older, Aika became more and more aware of the environment and the need to protect it. She often went walking with her grandmother to pick up trash in their neighborhood. When she was ten years old, she decided to write her autobiography. In it, she wrote, "I would like to become an Earth that is powerful, gentle to cradle, and fosters all of the lives on it."

In September, at the beginning of Aika's second semester in sixth grade, her teacher assigned each student a project of his or her choice to complete before the winter break. Aika decided to do what came naturally: create a comic book. But this comic book would be very different from her others. This one would teach people to care about the world she loved.

Aika set about creating three main characters: the planet Earth, a young boy named Eiichi, and Rumi, a young girl who looked a lot like Aika. In the story, Rumi checks out a book called Secrets of the Earth from the local library. When the children open the book, out pops Earth, shouting "Hi there?

Earth proceeds to teach the two children about the planet's history, as well as explain the water and carbon cycles, photosynthesis, food chains, soil chemistry, weather circulation, and other natural wonders. Earth also shows the two children the many ways in which people have damaged the planet, from oil spills to destroying the ozone layer to cutting down rain forests.

After hearing all of this, Eiichi and Rumi ask Earth, "What can we do to help?" In the last part of Aika's book, Earth tells the children how people can work together to protect the planet. Earth describes how countries can create international laws to protect plants and animals, as well as the everyday things people can do, such as recycling, carpooling, and conserving water.

Aika worked furiously on her project, often drawing late into the night until her mother insisted that she go to bed. She checked out dozens of books on nature and the environment and carefully crafted each page of her comic book so that it was fun, accurate, and easy to understand. Her friends asked her to ride bikes with them or go to the movies, but Aika could think of nothing except her book.

Secrets of the Earth took Aika almost two months to complete, and she proudly handed it to her teacher in late December. Just hours after turning it in, however, Aika suddenly came down with a severe headache. Her parents rushed her to the hospital, but she never recovered. On the morning of December 27, 1991, Aika died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Devastated by their loss, Aika's parents, family, and friends thought about what they could do to honor her memory and passion toward life. Aika's parents decided to bind Secrets of the Earth and give a copy to each of her classmates and teachers.

Inspired by this idea, others decided to spread Aika's message to children throughout Japan and around the world. A group called the Foundation for Global Peace and Environment began publishing Secrets of the Earth and distributing it to schoolchildren in Japan. Teachers, students, and parents enthusiastically embraced the book, and it became a textbook in many schools.

Encouraged by this success, the foundation translated the book into Chinese, English, and Arabic and started a "Secrets of the Earth Aika Club" in Japan. Later, Aika's story and book were adapted into a play that was performed over 100 times. Television stations also ran special programs that talked about Aika, her book, and her life.

In 1993, Aika's parents traveled to Beijing, China, to receive the United Nations Environment Program's Global 500 Roll of Honor Award on behalf of their daughter. They also presented copies of Secrets of the Earth to hundreds of other children who attended international children's conferences in other parts of the world.

Since then, the foundation and the Aika Club have organized environmental seminars for adults and symposiums for children. They have sent young delegates to environmental children's conferences all over the world. One, held in Aika's hometown of Shimane, attracted over 400 delegates from nineteen countries.

The Foundation for Global Peace and Environment has continued to publish and distribute Aika's book. In addition to the original four languages, the book has been translated into French, Korean, Vietnamese, German, and Thai. More than 400,000 copies have been distributed throughout the world.

All of these activities would have pleased Aika. Shortly before she died, someone asked her what she thought about when she was working on Secrets of the Earth. She wrote down her reply: "The most important thing is for people to stop thinking they can't do anything just because they are only one individual. If everybody thought that way, planet Earth really would be doomed! If everybody pitches in, I know we can turn this planet into a beautiful place."

Excerpted from Acting for Nature: What Young People Around the World Have Done to Protect the Environment by Sneed B. Collard III and Action for Nature [2269 Chestnut St., No. 263, San Francisco, CA 94133,]. Illustrations by Carl Dennis Buell. Published by Hey-day Books [PO Box 9145, Berkeley, CA 94709, (510) 549-3564].
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Earth Island Journal
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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