Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

From Eden to Suburbia: Perspectives on the Natural World in Children's Literature

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

From Eden to Suburbia: Perspectives on the Natural World in Children's Literature

Article excerpt

Books with a focus on the natural world are written for young readers with a variety of purposes, but broadly speaking constitute a spectrum measured by the degree of emphasis and/or explicitness falling on information or advocacy. At any point along the spectrum, therefore, the positionality of children, whether as participant characters and/or as implied audience, is a key concern of text. Children are apt to be thought of as nature-associated, both because they seem more overtly to display organic embeddedness than do adults, and because they are commonly attributed with an affinity with nature-associated, indigenous peoples pursuing traditional lifestyles. Historically, moreover, the child body has been deemed 'irrational', lacking in discipline and uncontrolled, and hence it is constructed as being much closer to nature. By seeking to invert, or at least evade, the culture-nature hierarchy of Western rationality, nature writing has the potential, through form and function, to valorize the situating of (or the 'already situatedness' of) those bodies within pro-environment discourses. But because the natural world has been coded very differently in the past, other possibilities still exist. As Richard T. Twine reminds us, the intersection between the mastery of nature and nature-associated peoples takes place in organically embedded bodies (Twine 2001, p.32).

By the 1980s, textual representations of the natural world in children's literature could draw upon one of three ideologically grounded perspectives. The first of these continues to promote mastery over nature, whereby the natural world exists for the benefit of humanity and must be subordinated to its desires and needs. The second assumes or promotes an attitude of caring, wonder and understanding of the natural world, or an awareness of environmental issues. There is only a limited degree of embeddedness, however, and humans are positioned as outside of nature and as the source of value and meaning. The third perspective draws on a nature-associated position which has affinities with deep ecology: intrinsic value is ascribed to all living beings, and human beings are not attributed with any kind of privileged status. An ideal text of this kind might entirely efface a human presence, but in practice this is impossible, as ecocriticism concedes. Kate Rigby expresses the position precisely: 'An acknowledgement of the centrality of the human actant, however contingent, contextualized, and decentered she might be in herself, is also a necessary condition for there to be such a thing as literature' (2004, p.427). The possibility of a position that is 'contingent, contextualized, and decentered' itself becomes slighter in children's literature because of the almost universal focus on narratives of human subjectivity and growth, with the concomitant demands of characterization, events, and narrative point of view.

Most children's texts dealing with the environment or ecology fall within the second ideological perspective identified here, and that will be the main focus of this paper. The first position, however, still largely dominates Western thought because it is a tenet underlying Christian and post-Christian societies, and informs the ideology of liberal democracies grounded on an individualist model which conceives of social and political governance in terms of accommodating an aggregation of self-interested desires. The more overtly political aspect of this position is glanced at in children's literature, as in, say, the close of Jeannie Baker's Where the Forest Meets the Sea, where the threat to wilderness comes from the aggregated interests of land speculation, service industries, tourism, and the desire for holidays in 'natural' but comfortable places.

The ideology of mastery of nature, or human domination, is very clearly reproduced in Norman Messenger's The Creation Story (2001), a Dorling Kindersley book which, according to the dust jacket, 'celebrates the origins of our abundant planet'. …

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