Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise's Regarding the Fountain, a 1998 book that I rediscovered in my parents' basement last week, is kids' book as paper trail. It's an illustrated file of memos, faxes, handwritten notes, and newspaper clippings, all pieced together into the story of an economically depressed Missouri town and the corrupt, greedy people who made it that way.
The book opens with a middle school secretary soliciting a bid from a water fountain design company, asking for a drinking fountain to replace the school's leaky model. Over time, the quirky designer begins corresponding with the fifth graders whose classroom faces the fountain. Meanwhile, the school board president (who also owns the town swimming pool) and the head of the bottled water company (which has a local monopoly on water) vehemently oppose replacing the fountain, for vague but suspicious reasons. Also meanwhile, the fifth graders work on a history project about their town and discover that it was fertile and thriving until the creek dried up — in the same year the middle school was founded.
You may have already guessed the conclusion: It turns out that the school board president and bottled water businessman dammed up the spring that fed the creek, so that they could control and profit from the town's only source of water. Though the conspiracy is telegraphed early on, I remember being excited by the reveal as a kid. Even now, I enjoyed many of the hints placed along the way, like in the fifth-graders' vocabulary lessons: Their teacher mentions that the fountain designer is intriguing, then lists "intrigue" as the class' word of the day: "1. To spark the interest or curiosity of. 2. A covert scheme to achieve a secret purpose; an underhand plot."
Regarding the Fountain is extremely whimsical, even with its grounding in business-speak and paperwork — for example, every character's name is an aquatic pun (Wally Russ, Tad Poll, etc.). For most of the book, I was ready to recommend it to any elementary schooler or parent as a lighthearted introduction to corrupt public officials and the privatization of utilities. (Which it actually is!)
But the kind of parents who would buy such a book might be thrown off by the over-the-top victory of the last pages. A happy ending is natural for a kids' book, but the story of the students exposing the fountain plot and sending the culprits to jail almost feels too neat. Even if this is just your primer, how do you jump from that to explaining something like the crisis in Flint, concerns over mining in the Boundary Waters, or the Native-led fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline?
I don't mean to shove unearned gravitas into this blog post about a fluffy kids' book, but the ongoing struggle for access to clean water — and the consequences when that access is denied — were on my mind as I read Regarding the Fountain. Then I thought about how whimsy can be a tool for helping people understand and spurring them to change. Maybe when an issue is complex and daunting, lighthearted laughter is helpful.
Whimsy is definitely an aspect of the Water Bar. First developed as a pop-up by artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, and now with a storefront home in Northeast Minneapolis, Water Bar starts conversations about water in a taproom-style setting. Visitors can sip flights from different locations — for example, comparing Minneapolis water to St. Paul water. Though interactions can touch on serious and immediate topics, the fact that they're playing on the concept of flight tastings draws people in. Even the bar's tagline has a double meaning: "Water is all we have" describes the menu, but also speaks to the importance of conserving water for everyone.
I wrote an article for Creative Exchange about how public art can point to a future without carbon-based fuel, and how art pieces can even be practical sources of renewable energy. When I interviewed the founders of the Land Art Generator Initiative, they mentioned the importance of being hopeful and looking to the future, because with environmental issues, it can be so easy to feel bleak. Art and humor help us move forward instead of feeling panic-stricken and stuck.
The difference between me and the artists using whimsy and playfulness and creativity to dig into these environmental realities, I think, is that they've delved into the bleakness, too. I haven't, really. Maybe that's why Regarding the Fountain felt too heavily tipped in the direction of whimsy, at least to me at this moment. The book needed to shake the reader just a little harder with what it would mean to live in a town without water.
And I need to shake myself a little harder, too — not just letting myself be delighted by art projects that speak to environmental issues, but reckoning with why those projects want to get my attention. I need to read the grim news stories more often, make the lifestyle changes. I need to do the hard work and earn the whimsy and beauty and laughter that will get us through.