Can children's literature increase people'ssense of connection and accountability to the natural world? And if so, how? Inthese days of anxiety about environmental degradation and climate change, theseare timely questions, which were considered at length at the Children'sLiterature and the Environmental Imagination symposium held earlier this monthat the University of Toronto's Trinity College.
Speakers included renowned Harvard professorLawrence Buell, who literally wrote the book on the matter of how literaturerepresents the natural environment in his 1996 work The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and theFormation of American Culture, but this was the first time he had focusedon children's literature specifically, he said. He and the other panelists—authors M.T. Anderson, David Almond, Susan Cooper, Sarah Ellis, TimWynne-Jones, and environmental journalist Marguerite Holloway—seemed togenerally agree that while no one book is likely to change the world,children's literature can have a significant impact.
Looking at children's early connections to thenatural world, British author David Almond pointed to the fact that some of thefirst words almost all parents teach their children are animal sounds. " 'Whatdoes a dog say?'.... We all do it, don't we?The world is full of kids running around pretending to be animals, encouragedby their parents." He suggested that while we are teaching children to usespeech and language and be part of society, "We're also training them andencouraging them to celebrate and express the communion with the world ofbeasts."
M.T. Anderson's view of the impact of animals inboard books was more darkly comic. "It's somewhat peculiar that we chooselivestock as a good first image of man's relationship to the natural world," hesaid. He recounted the way his younger sister, when she was about five yearsold, made a joke about chicken at the dinner table one night, never imaginingthat the chicken served for dinner could be the same as the chickens she readabout in her story books. "She became a vegetarian by age six," he said. Anderson wittilywove such personal stories about growing up in Stow, Mass., with a look at the way children'sbooks from the past, such as Robert McCloskey's Homer Price and CenterburgTales, helped define readers' ideas about nature, small-town America,industrialization, and urbanization. To witness the current potency of nostalgic images of rural America,"this brass-band Brigadoon, which may never have existed, this Norman Rockwellvillage," Andersonpointed to former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's wielding of thoseimages as a weapon "to attack anything she disagrees with."
Science journalist and Columbia Universityprofessor Marguerite Holloway focused on the ways literature can help childrengain an imaginative grasp of scale, as well as connect to nature and humans'place in it. Reading aloud a passage from Mary Norton's The Borrowers, in which a tiny character named Arrietty firstventures outside into the garden, Holloway said that children's imaginativeability to project themselves into the miniature world could build both a senseof connectedness and empathy. "If you can imagine Arrietty patting the beetlethat is knee-high or you yourself as Arrietty, you can likely also imaginebeing the beetle," she said. "Our world, our scale, our lives are no longerprivileged. Insects and small animals inhabit terrain that is just as real andjust as engaging as the world up here.... Imagining an insect'seye-view might mean that you think about insects and creatures down low, thatyou value them." A better grasp of scale, Holloway said, has helped conservationpolicies move from "save the seals" to "save this ecosystem."
While most of the authors spoke of theimportance of the natural world in their lives and their work, Almond offered aparticularly vivid view of the bit of "wasteland" in the heather hills at thetop of the town where he and his friends used to play until nightfall. It was,he said, "the place where we dug our dens and lit our fires, and we re-foughtancient wars, and we ran and screamed and howled and laughed and whispered andgenerally had a great time under the massive sky and the reddening dusk." Thiskind of wilderness away from the eyes of adults is vital for children and theirimaginative lives, he said. But much of the discussion afterward amongteachers, librarians, and parents attending the conference revolved aroundfears for the safety of children who are out of sight. One mother commentedthat she would like her kids to have that kind of freedom in the outdoors, but"it's terrifying," she said.
Buell said these kinds of concerns and anincreasingly urban society have led to a condition that environmentaljournalist Richard Louv termed "nature deficit disorder: malformation of adultidentity arising from curtailment of kids roaming about in the exploration of wildspaces." But Buell suggested that literature that includes a crucial bondingwith nature could serve as "a kind of surrogate or prosthetic memory" thatmight partly offset the effects of limited outdoor experiences.
Almond didn't speak directly to that suggestion,but he did make a similar comparison in his presentation. A good book is like achild that has brought the tingle of the wild into the house with him, he said."It sits comfortably on the shelves in our comfortable home, but it is nottame. As you read it, you realize that it has come back from somewhere wild. Thereare echoes of wilderness."
Jan Andrews, a children's author attending theconference, offered a kind of rallying cry as the conference wound up. Authorsof children's literature have to be very careful not to feed into contemporaryfears. "It's not a culture and climate of actually doing anything, it's justworrying about it," she said. "And worrying is not empowering. I think it isour job to create books, not in a simplistic way but in a complex way, wherethe heroes and heroines are shown as those people who can go out and fight thegiants and come back home."