Monday, November 24, 2008

Key Themes in Children's Literature - A Sense of Place

Hugh Mackay suggests what Geographers, writers, sociologists, urban planners, architects and anthropologists have been telling us for a long time, place is crucial to all people. “It is fundamental to the human sense of self, sense of community, sense of mortality and sense of destiny", argues Hugh Mackay (here). Perhaps claiming a link to a sense of destiny is taking things too far and is contestable, but in general terms, he makes a point that we all sense. Place is important to us. Mackay also suggests that it is wrong to suggest that a sense of place is only of significance to specific peoples, for example Indigenous Australians. He comments that “Different cultures obviously have different ways of expressing their sense of place; we revere our ‘tribal grounds’ in different ways.

Some of us find it hard to move house, and take months and even years to feel at home in a new house, street, community, city or country. I’m one of those people. I take at least three years before the urban streets that I travel each day, the shops, the buildings and the physical landscape, feel like my place. I know I’m not the only person like this, and I also know that not everyone finds it this difficult. My wife seems to adjust to any move we make within weeks; it’s as if, wherever her family is she is at home.

Someone who has written frequently about sense of place is Chinese Professor of Architecture Yi-Fu Tuan. In one of his earliest books, Space and place, he defines this sense of place. He suggests that place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. Simply giving a place a name separates a space from the rest of space that surrounds it. But of course some places attract stronger meanings or significance for individuals and groups. The great iconic rock near Alice Springs in Central Australia (Uluru) is one such place that has deep spiritual significance for Indigenous Australians. But almost every person has some place that is special – perhaps it is a spot with such beauty that it almost takes your breath away; perhaps it is associated with good (or bad) memories; perhaps it is a place that is so much a part of your daily life that it has special significance. My back yard has this significance for me. It’s where I garden, where I play with all my grandchildren, where I build stuff, where I sit and have a quiet cup of tea with my wife Carmen. As well, there are other places that I visit that are so rich with memories that I can feel immediate joy, melancholy, sadness and fear.

Above: Uluru, Central Australia

Place and the writer

Given the influence of place on our lives, memories, relationships and experiences, it is hardly surprising that much literature has a strong sense of place. Of course, in the case of narrative, you cannot easily have a story without a setting or place, but in some writing place has a special central role, almost as strong as the very characters that are interwoven in the plot. In some narratives, a sense of place is on centre stage, almost shaping the narrative and its characters. The relationship between place and people is most strong in such writing. In the rest of this post, I want to offer some examples of children’s literature for younger readers that have this strong sense of place, and comment on how each integrates place with story. It is difficult to lump all books that have a strong sense of place together, for all draw their inspiration and use place differently. So, I’ve chosen some sub-categories, with which not all readers or literature experts might agree, but it helps me to make sense of difference, and I hope it helps readers of this blog.

a) Books that had their genesis in a place and memories or legends linked to this place

The Little Island (1946), Golden MacDonald & Leonard Weisgard – winner of the Caldecott Medal 1947 is a fine example of a book that had its genesis in a place that formed part of the author’s life. Leonard Weisgard and Golden MacDonald (pseudonym for Margaret Wise Brown) collaborated on over 20 books and hence both writer and illustrator helped shape this book in every way. But it was Weisgard’s wonderful illustrations that establish the strong sense of place that dominates this book. In his acceptance speech for the Caldecott in 1947 he said:

This is a real little island off the coast of Maine belonging to a group of other little islands called Vinalhaven. I saw this island grow tall and squat as the tides rose and fell. I've watched the mists blow in and hide the little island, sometimes leaving only the pine tree tops exposed, hanging in space. I rowed to and from the little island with the seals spawning below the surface of the water. I've seen the sun rise and make a golden island for just five seconds in an early morning sea.

The Rainbow Serpent (1975), Dick Roughsey (1940-1985) – This wonderful book is perhaps the best example of a collection of books that Dick Roughsey wrote and illustrated. This was his first published book and won the Picture Book of the Year award, from the Children’s Book Council Australia in 1976. Roughsey was later to collaborate with Percy Trezise to produce a number of wonderful picture books that faithfully retold Aboriginal Dreamtime legends. Many of them have a strong sense of place, which is not surprising given that Aboriginal Australians, like many indigenous people, have a strong connection with the land, and much of their history is tied to it. In this Dreamtime story Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent is awakened at a time when there were no animals and sets off to find his own tribe. As he travels right across Australia his huge body shapes the land into mountains, rivers, hills and lagoons. I intend to do a post on Roughsey and his work in the near future.

Other good examples of this type include The Biggest Bear, Lynd Ward (1952), Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Jeannie Baker (1978), Wheel on the Chimney, Margaret Wise Brown and Tigor Gergly (1954) and Farmer Schulz’s Ducks, Colin Thiele (1986).

b) Books for which the place is secondary to the primary message but which has shaped the story

There are numbers of books that have a strong sense of place but for which without the place that is the setting there would be no story. Such stories are often driven by an ideological challenge, a political message or a strong social comment. One fine example in this sub-category is “Let the Celebrations Begin!”, Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas (1991). This book was inspired by some simple toys made by Polish women held in the Nazi prison camp of Belsen. It tells of the life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as they anticipate their liberation from the camp towards the end of the Second World War. This is a narrative with a setting that is so specific that the narrator (Miriam) identifies her bed number (Hut 18, bed 22). This powerful story could not be told without the place, and yet, the place (or setting) is very much secondary to the story told.

A second example is “My Hiroshima”, by Junko Morimoto (1987). This is a true story of how one little girl survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Junko Miromoto narrates the story of her family, her early life and memory of life in Japan during the second World War, and the day she was hit by a “thunderous flash and an explosion of sound” and the miracle of her survival. This moving simple retelling of that day in word, family photographic record and illustration, uses a place to recall her participation in an event at a place that changed her life and that of the world.

c) Books that demonstrate the relationship between people and place

There is overlap between this sub-category and the above for each shows a relationship between space and people, and each has a level of social commentary. But these books are typically in the form of a moral tale, and an underlying comment on how people’s lives can be so closely related to a physical place.

My Place” by Nadia Wheatley (writer) and Donna Rawlins (illustrator) (1987) was published in Australia’s bicentennial year and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence decade by decade from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment.

A dramatically different story is the 1964 Shel Silverstein classic “The giving tree” that tells the story of a single tree and it’s relationship to a boy who grows up to be a man. Silverstein’s simple line drawings and beautifully crafted text tracks the special ‘relationship’ between the tree and the boy/man. A tree that gives to the boy and later the man shelter, fruit, timber, transport and ultimately rest.

This multi-layered book has caused controversy. Some see it as suggesting that it shows the way that human greed can never be satisfied with environmental consequences, others see it as a commentary on childhood’s care-free nature, while others see the book as a tale of unconditional love and generosity. However, you see it, this book build on the sense that people feel a conncetion with specific spaces and the objects within them.

Other interesting examples include “In my Backyard” (2001) by Nette Hilton (author) and Anne Spudvilas (illustrator) and “Window” (1991) and "Belonging" (2004) by Jeannie Baker.

d) Books that celebrate place as part of national pride and cultural communication

Typically the books in this sub-category focus on celebrating the beauty of places, or the natural environment that gives shape to the beauty and interest of such places. “Possum Magic” (1983) by Mem Fox (author) and Julie Vivas (illustrator) is a celebration of Australia’s wildlife, its cities and some of its food. It is Australia’s best selling children’s book of all time with over three million copies sold.

Waddle Giggle Gargle!” (1996) by Pamela Allen tells the story of a difficult Australian Magpie that (for non-Australian readers) have the habit of dive-bombing people walking under their trees in Spring during nesting season. Many streets, parks and communities face this challenge each September and this book tells how Jonathan and his grandparents deal with the magpie in their street.

Other books in this sub-category include “My Grandma lived in Gooligulch” (1983) which was the first book that Graeme Base wrote. It is written in verse form and like Possum’s Magic celebrates Australia’s wildlife. “Sail Away” (1986) also written by Mem Fox is another example. It is a ballad about two dingoes that travel around Australia in their own homemade sailboat.

There are many other examples that fit the above categories and I'm sure some other sub-categories but hopefully the above gives an indication of the rich influence that sense of place has on childrens picture books.

Related Links

Other posts on Key Themes in Children’s Literature include:

The environment
Being different

Some of the authors of the above books are also featured in my Author Focus posts (here)

No comments: