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The Leak

“I want you all to realize: Pollution isn’t just something that’s happening to other people” — Ms. Freeman, The Leak, p. 53.

Creator(s) Kate Reed Petty (author), Andrea Bell (illustrator)
PublisherFirst Second
Publication Date2021
GenreMystery, Fiction
Environmental Themes and Issues Pollution, Water Conservation, Environmental Justice, Environmental Activism, Animals in Danger
Protagonist’s Identity Ruth: A brown-skinned biracial, middle school girl

The comic also features a multi-racial cast of characters
Protagonist’s Level of Environmental AgencyLevel 5: High Environmental Agency and Activism
Target Audience Middle Grade (8 to 12 years)
Settings Fictional town of Twin Oaks in the United States
Cover of The Leak

Environmental Themes

Inspired by the Flint, Michigan water crisis, The Leak centers on Ruth Keller, a twelve-year-old aspiring journalist. She publishes a weekly online newsletter about events in her small town and dreams of working at The New York Times with her brother’s girlfriend. During a fishing trip at the fictional Particular Lake, Ruth discovers that a strange black slime has polluted the water and killed the native fish. With the help of her crush, Jonathan, she decides to investigate the slime for her newsletter. Ruth and Jonathan suspect that the pollution originated at a local country club that has previously been cited for violating the Clean Water Act, but the owner refuses to answer their questions. The children trespass at the club and narrowly escape capture by the security team after finding no evidence of pollution. Determined to solve the mystery, they take a sample of lake water to their science teacher, Ms. Freeman. After testing the water, Ms. Freeman discovers that harmful chemicals, including lead, have polluted the lake.

Ruth discovers toxic black slime has killed fish at the lake in The Leak.

In class the next day, Ms. Freeman teaches the students about the Flint water crisis. Afterwards, she informs Ruth that she has attempted to contact the county and state environmental agency about Particular Lake, but, like the officials responsible for the Flint crisis, the agency has disregarded her warning. In response, Ruth publishes an article about the pollution in her newsletter. To her surprise, the issue attracts attention from county officials and a popular blog, and she gains over a thousand subscribers. That night, however, the owner of the country club visits the Keller home and threatens to take security footage of Ruth and Jonathan trespassing unless Ruth halts her investigation. Though Ruth’s parents ground her, she continues to work on the newsletter, naming additional water polluting businesses in the community.

Science teacher Ms. Freeman helps Ruth and Jonathan test the lake water for toxic chemicals in The Leak.

After visiting the dentist to have yet another cavity filled, Ruth realizes that the town’s tap water is also polluted with toxic chemicals–including chromium, lead, and barium–that are damaging the residents’ teeth and health. She returns to the country club to confront the owner, who informs her that he has discovered that a local power plant has an unlined pit filled with coal waste that is leaching chemicals into the water. Ruth teams up with researchers investigating the problem and conducts interviews with the town residents about the impact that the water has had on their health. The researchers plan a press conference to share their findings with the media and the town. A representative from the power plant tries to pressure Ruth into lying at the press conference, warning her, “We just want to make sure everyone feels good about this conference. We don’t want to scare anyone” (Petty 216). Instead, Ruth tells the truth about the pollution to assembled reporters, and she teams up with a reporter at The New York Times who is investigating the power plant. The comic concludes in an epilogue that takes place six months after the press conference. Though the state has still not replaced the town’s contaminated water lines, the power plant representative has leaked more information about the plant to Ruth, and she reaches out to the Times reporter with a proposal for a new story.


The comic includes a three-page afterword about the dangers of “fake news” and the need for trustworthy journalists who follow the ethical code that Ruth learns from her brother’s girlfriend. Petty encourages young readers to speak up about environmental issues like water pollution, writing, “You will always have a voice. it may be hard at first, but if you keep speaking up, eventually people will listen. So be sure you are speaking the truth” (235).

Posted in Fiction, Mystery

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