Monday, March 15, 2010

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Environmental Issues

As I have written in previous posts, literature has many purposes and benefits. It has the power to affect our lives, to teach, to offer meaning and purpose. Individual texts become part of our textual histories as they pass on timeless knowledge and truth, values and wisdom. Much of the richness of story that has been communicated through the ages has been distilled into great books. I summed up my three posts on The Power of Literature with these words:
Literature has great power to teach, enrich and transform us.
Literature can have man forms, countless topics and can address many themes, each of which have the potential to challenge and teach children. In this post I explore how some books deal with environmental themes. In a previous post on the work of Colin Thiele (here) I dealt in part with this theme, but this post is a more comprehensive attempt to look at it.

The varied responses to the theme

There are many ways that authors have explored environmental issues. In some books it is central to the book, while in others, it is secondary to the narrative and other themes. Here are just some of the ways children's books explore environmental issues:
  • Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world
  • The relationship of people to the environment
  • The negative impact of humanity on the environment
  • A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder
1. Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world

There are a number of children's books that simply celebrate the world as creation. Some of these books simply focus on the beauty of nature, while others offer creation accounts, myths and metaphysical explanations of the world and humanity's connection to it.

'The Waterhole' by Graeme Base

This beautifully illustrated book is centred on a waterhole that is progressively drying up. While the book is a counting book for young children, the constant focus on the waterhole and its diminishing size as the water is used by an international collection of animals, is used by Base to show how water is essential to life. Without it the land withers and dies and life is lost, but as the first drops of replenishing rains return life begins to emerge again.

'Enora and the Black Crane', Arone Raymond Meeks

The Aboriginal artist who wrote and illustrated this book tells the story of a young man who lived in a rainforest at peace and in harmony with the physical world. That is, until one day after encountering a flock of amazing birds he accidentally kills a crane with dramatic consequences. Enora and his world lose their innocence.

'The Rainbow Serpent', by Dick Roughsey

This is another Australian Aboriginal legend that tells the Dreamtime story of a time when there were only people and how Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent travels across the country with a dramatic transformation of the land and the resulting creation of animal life.

'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray', Paul Jennings & Jane Tanner (Illustrator)

This story tells of the encounter of a fisherman with a strange fish and its mother. He catches young fish from deep within the sea, just after its mother has given birth to this, the last young, of its species. The old man looks at the beautiful creature as its colour and beauty begin to fade away in the bottom of his boat and he returns it to the sea. It survives and he is changed by the encounter.

The Whales' Song, Dyan Sheldon (Author) & Gary Blythe (Illustrator)

This is the story of Lilly and how she is captured by the story of the Whales' song that is told to her by her grandmother. A species once so plentiful that her grandmother would hear them sing at night, but now they are just a memory of an era of whaling that has gone. Lilly's mystical connection with the whales is the focus of the story.

2. The relationship of people to the environment

This sub-category includes books that tell of the fine balance between man and his environment and the disastrous consequences when we get this balance wrong. In these stories it is not a matter of deliberate action, but rather ignorance and failure to plan effectively, which leads to the destruction of environments whose beauty was once a lure to people.

'Window', by Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is a wonderful artist who is a master of collage who tells her stories with wonderful illustrations and a minimum of words. This book is in fact wordless that tells the story of a changing place when viewed from a boy's window. He grows from a baby to a man with the view changing from dense bush and diverse wildlife to suburbia, before he moves on to a new place on the urban fringe where no doubt the process begins afresh.

'Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush'
, by Lynne Cherry

Flute is a wood thrush who migrates from North America to Costa Rica. The story traces the hatching and travels of Flute and in the process introduces the reader to issues of endangered species, environmental hazards, toxic waste, loss of habitats and co on.

'The World that Jack Built', by Ruth Brown

This is an interesting picture book that plays on the idea of the well-known rhyme 'This is the house that Jack built'; but with a twist. The narrative follows the main character who is a black cat chasing a butterfly. The cat's trail moves from Jack's house in the idyllic English countryside, to the trees that gave the raw materials, the stream that flowed nearby, the woods etc. The cat eventually finds its way to a much different stream that flows by the factory that guess who built?

'Kenju's Forest', by Junko Morimoto

This book is the opposite message of 'Window', and tells how a boy with a vision to plant some trees in a rural farming environment sees his dream become a reality over his lifetime. And as it does, the forest becomes the playground for the town that eventually was to grow near his forest. It tells a more positive story about how humanity can improve the environment rather than just degrading it.

3. The negative impact of humanity on the environment

Stories in this category reflect man's careless destruction of the environment motivated by greed and ignorance. These are stories that tell of humanity's failure to see environmental damage and act to prevent it. They also tend to have a much stronger ideological message.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea', by Jeannie Baker

This is another wonderful book by Jeannie Baker (perhaps her best). It tells the story of a boy and his Dad who go regularly to a wonderful beach in northern Queensland at a place where the ocean meets the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. This threatened landscape has been shrinking for decades. As the boy explores the rainforest he imagines what it might have been like 100 million years before when dinosaurs roamed. He finishes the day cooking fish on the beach and contemplates coming again someday. But in the background we see a landscape overlain by ghostly images of what it might be like when he comes back again, should development do in this place what it has done in many other parts of the Daintree.

'The Sign of the Seahorse: A tale of Greed and High Adventure', by Graeme Base

This wonderful ballad tells of the exploitation of an underwater world by a corrupt and evil Groper, his side kick Swordfish and a band of 'henchfish', who pollute a reef to drive out its inhabitants, secure their 'land' at rock bottom prices, and then sell them new homes on another reef. A tale of greed, corruption, and environmental exploitation, where good eventually wins out.

'The Lorax', by Dr Seuss

Many of the books of Dr Seuss offer a social commentary (see my post on Seuss here). In this story a small boy notices at the end of a desolate street on the edge of town, a ramshackle house with a memorial to the 'Lorax'. What was it he wonders as he gazes at the home of the Once-ler? The Once-ler drops his Whisper-ma-Phone and for a small fee tells the boy the story of the Lorax and the once beautiful Truffula trees that covered the landscape, and the creatures that enjoyed the environment they helped to sustain. The story of greed, excess, and environmental destruction ends with the Once-ler giving the boy the last seed of a Truffula tree. Perhaps, just perhaps, in his young hands there may be hope for this place once more.

'Lester and Clyde', James H. Reece

This is the story of two frogs one a young and mischievous youngster (Lester) and the other an older stayed frog named Clyde. Lester plays just one too many tricks and is kicked out of their beautiful wetland and heads off to find his own way in the world. He is shocked to find that not all ponds are like his, and in fact some have been destroyed and made unsuitable for frogs. He returns repentant and is embraced by Clyde and the story ends happily with the words of Clyde: "try not to worry, although it's so wrong, at least we're safe here...until Man comes along!"

4. A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder

Books in this category celebrate the world's biodiversity and beauty without pointing to problems or making strong comments about human action. These are books where often the environment is secondary to the story, but where everything about the book reinforces the value, beauty and wonder of our world.

'Aranea: A Story About a Spider', by Jenny Wagner & Ron Brooks (Illustrator)

This (as the name suggests) is the story of a back yard spider who weaves its wonderful web each night using its skill and the elements to survive. Its encounter's with man is just one of life's challenges, just as dangerous is nature's elements of storm, wind and rain.

'Wind in the Willows', Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite books (see my previous post on it here). Kenneth Grahame manages to tell a wonderful tale of animals of the English wood and riverbank. It opens in spring, and the weather is fine and animals are stirring from their winter slumber. We first meet the good-natured and uncomplicated Mole discards his spring cleaning and leaves his underground home. He reaches the river, a thing he had never seen before and meets the wise and worldly Ratty (in reality it was a ‘water vole’), who sees life as something that must be lived along the river. A parade of rich characters is introduced against a backdrop of the wonderful physical world. Otter and Badger, Toad, Stoats and Weasels are introduced as he weaves his wonderful tale of friendship, devotion and the challenges and 'human' frailties of life. There are many wonderful versions including the more recent illustrated version with Robert Ingpen's wonderful art (here).

'The Little Island', Golden McDonald and Leonard Weisgard

This classic picture book was the winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1947. It is a fine example of a book that had its genesis in a place that formed part of the author’s life. Weisgard loved this island where he explored its waters. His wonderful illustrations capture the beauty and rich biodiversity of this place.

'S is for Save the Planet: A How to be Green Alphabet'
, by Brad Herzog and Linda Hold Ayriss (Illustrator)

This is a book for the very young. It is an alphabet book that focuses on environmental issues. The illustrations support the clever use of simple text to raise environmental issues and suggest ways to save the planet from environmental disaster. Suitable for children aged 3-6 years.

Related Posts & Resources

An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Literature with Environmental Themes (Here)

'Key Themes in Literature: A Sense of Place' (Here)

All posts on Children's Literature (Here)


KylieM said...

I am pleased to say I own atleast 7 of those books, which are all favourites with my children. Jeannie Baker particularly is a firm favourite. You always find something new in her pictures!

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Kylie,

Glad that you've used some of these books. Any favourites not on my list?


Marita said...

What a wonderful list of books. We've got a few of them already but I will be looking up the others at our library.

Recently we discovered a book at our library called "I once was a cardboard box but now I'm a book about Polar Bears" which quickly has became popular with both my girls.

The main story is facts about polar bears but each page has a sidebar about the boxes journey to becoming a book about polar bears. :)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Marita, I don't know the book about Polar bears, I'll check it out.


Loralee said...

"The Tree" by Dana Lyons is stunningly beautiful. The setting is the Pacific Northwest of the United States.