For 30 years, Chelsea Clinton has wanted to save elephants from extinction.
“[It] was hugely important to me to include information that wasn’t only fun to learn about these animals — and wasn’t only sobering about why they’re endangered — but was also empowering for kids about what they each could do,” the vice chair of the Clinton Foundation and former first daughter, 39, told PEOPLE following a reading at the Bronx Zoo on Tuesday, which launched the book’s publication. (Clinton read amidst excited shouts of “Tiger!” and “Polar bear!” as she turned the page.)
The multi-published author continued, “I want every kid to feel like, ‘Yes, we can make a difference and we have to make a difference!’ ”
Clinton was partly inspired to write kids’ books (she’s penned five so far) because of her own children. She and husband Marc Mezvinsky, vice chairman of Social Capital, share son Aidan, 2½, and daughter Charlotte, 4½, and are expecting their third child this summer.
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While on tour for her middle-grade book for young activists, Start Now!: You Can Make a Difference, Clinton told PEOPLE she was approached by young readers whose biggest concerns — and passions — were creatures from the animal kingdom.
Motivated by her own love of animals and her young fans, she decided to create a picture book that featured some of their favorite animals. Don't Let Them Disappear gives young readers interesting information about each animal (e.g., sea otters wash their paws after every meal), details about why the different species are at risk and how readers can help save them.
“Yes, these are urgent challenges and the longer we wait — whether it’s fighting climate change or saving these endangered species, recognizing that those two issues are connected — the harder it will be,” she said. “So we should, in some ways, feel optimistic that if we start now that we have a better chance of making a difference.”
Clinton is also optimistic because endangered animals, like the bald eagle, have been saved before. For the immediate future, she hopes that people will convert to renewable energy sources, change their behavior as consumers and re-evaluate what they’re demanding of governments across the world.
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She has started early with her own children. Clinton talks to Charlotte and Aidan about climate change and how to use energy responsibly, she said.
“We do it at home with our climate-smart light bulbs, or making sure we turn off water when we’re not using it so we’re conserving water,” she told PEOPLE last year. “Our kids help us carry out the recycling.”
Clinton is even careful when buying lipstick, which often contains palm oil. She either avoids products that contain it or looks for sustainably sourced options, because orangutans are losing their habitats to palm-oil plantations.
The author was horrified when a dead whale was discovered with 88 lbs. of plastic in its stomach in the Philippines on March 15, explaining, “The dead whale last week with the 88 pounds of garbage in its stomach included [lots of] single-use plastic, which is just horrific and horrifying to me.”
During the reading, Clinton’s passion to help save the planet successfully translated to her young audience.
“I wrote this book [after] I heard from lots of kids how much you also care about animals and because I wish I’d had this book as a kid,” Clinton told one 9-year-old audience member.
She explained, “I think there are really important things you can do to help educate your parents and grandparents and other people around you about what we can do to help save these animals, so that they don’t disappear.”