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Children's Literature

Children's Literature in Environmental Education

Ecocriticism 

 

Children’s literature can be used in incredibly impactful ways to enhance environmental education.One field of research that is particularly helpful in this endeavor is called ecocriticism. There are many definitions of ecocriticism, and though the term is widely used among academics, its meaning remains somewhat ambiguous. At its core however, ecocriticism can be defined as the study between literature and the physical environment (Dobrin & Kidd, 2004, p. 3; Gaard, 2008, p. 11; Glotfelty, 1996, p. xviii). More specifically, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary studies - ecocriticism is looking at the literature in our lives through ‘nature-coloured’ glasses (Dobrin & Kidd, 2004, p. 3; Glotfelty, 1996, p. xviii). Educators can use the lense of ecocriticism to inform their EE teaching practice, including what books they use in their classrooms. Let’s look at how!

 

Ecoliterary Texts

 

A helpful classification of books for educators who are trying to select environmentally conscious resources that promote positive attitudes and actions toward the environment and nonhuman others, are called ecoliterary texts. Simply put, ecoliterary texts are texts that foster a love for the environment. They are characterized by scientific validity and credibility, as well as an ability to educate readers in a way that establishes and promotes an ecological affinity for other species, the landscape, and the environment as a whole (Rainbow, 2014). Ecoliterary texts have four defining features (Buell, 1996). (1) The nonhuman world is present in the book, and is not used simply as a backdrop. For example, the book portrays the characters engaging with the environment which provides the reader with opportunities to do the same. Another way in which this trait could present itself in texts is through the presence of active, nonhuman agents. (2) The human interest is not the only legitimate interest in the text.  As such, nonhuman interests are given as much importance as human interests (the trees in the forest have value, just as the logger does). (3) Human accountability toward the environment is evident in the book. Human actions in the book reflect a need for stewardship, and environmental responsibility. (4) Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant is implicit in the text. As such, nature is not taken for granted. Instead, it is clear that it changes and evolves, and that its processes and functions are important to the natural world and are embedded within human-made systems. 

 

For more information regarding ecocriticism and ecoliterary texts, and how you can become an ecocritical educator, check out the pdf linked below!

3 Common Environmental Models in Children's Literature

 

When using children’s literature generally, or for EE, educators should also be aware of the three most common approaches that children’s literature has taken toward the natural world and the position of humans within it. These models were identified by Carolyn Sigler, and are very helpful when selecting texts. The first approach, referred to as the domination model, is characterized by an anthropocentric view. Books that take the form of the domination model place humans at the top of the natural hierarchy, and center human interests. They encourage the domination, development, and/or exploitation of nature and often promote consumerism, portray capitalist ideals, and in some instances, even advocate for imperialism. Books such as these often disregard human dependence on natural systems, ignore the inherent value or nonhuman others, and instead, commodify nature by portraying nonhuman entities as resources. At most, the only value of nature in these books is directly linked to their ability to fulfill human wants and needs. At worst, nature is considered to have no value at all. Books that follow the domination model should be avoided. If they are to be used in an educational setting, educators are encouraged to unpack and discuss the messages present in the text with pupils. 

The second approach is called the caretaker model, also referred to as the stewardship model. In literature, this model translates into the portrayal of humans as environmental stewards. Texts that follow this model show human accountability toward the environment and promote pro-environmental behaviours on the part of the individual. For example, characters may participate in recycling or planting trees, the words in the book might promote shopping local, biking to school, or turning off the lights and the pictures in the book may show people taking care of animals, cleaning up a park, or composting. While all of these behaviours are pro-environmental behaviours, the main message of the book is often self-serving - we must take care of the planet because we need it to survive. In this way, the caretaker model still presents an anthropocentric view, but can result in positive environmental outcomes. As such, books of this kind can be helpful, but can also be dangerous. They often portray the earth as an entity without agency, a helpless victim to be saved. Thus, educators must be conscious and intentional when using this type of text in their practice. 

The final approach identified is the ecocentric (or biocentric) model. This model is characterized by its rejection of anthropocentric views. Instead, it explores the connectedness of all living and nonliving things and decenters humanity’s importance in nonhuman nature. This model provides nonhuman others with an authentic voice, and a level of agency not found in the other models. It acknowledges the inherent value of living things, and promotes their interests. In this model, humanity is placed within the ‘circle of life’ rather than at the top of a hierarchy. As such, it is evident in the text that humans are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and to go even further, are not a requirement for the survival of natural systems (in many instances we are actually more damaging than helpful to those systems). This model aligns with various Indigenous worldviews, making many traditional stories great resources for the classroom as they portray the land as both an independent entity, and active teacher. Books that follow this model are valuable teaching tools for educators. 

(Dobrin & Kidd, 2004)

 

Animals in Children's Literature

 

Animals are frequently used in children’s literature as devices to help teach morals and other lessons to children. Many would argue that as characters, animals are incredibly useful tools because when given human characteristics, and placed within societies that mirror our own, animals are able to engage in life-like scenarios in a way that is relatable to children, but distant enough to maintain a level of emotional separation. Essentially, it is easier to learn about emotionally distressing topics like death, bullying, illness, racism, divorce, etc. from animal characters because while we are able to relate to them, it is clear that they are not us. As such, there is value in books that have animal characters such as the Berenstain Bears, Max and Ruby, or Olivia, when dealing with emotional development, and discussing ‘heavy’ topics. That said, there is a danger to these types of books as well. 

Research has shown that the anthropomorphism of animals in texts also has many negative effects. Firstly, it reinforces the idea that humans are superior to animals by teaching children to value animals not for their intrinsic worth, but for their ability to display human-like traits. Furthermore, they push beyond recognition of the self in the other, and do not allow for opportunities for children to recognize the nonhuman animal in themselves. Texts should celebrate both the similarities and differences between humans and animals. Finally, these texts provide children with inaccurate information about the animals and how they really live. Pro-environmental texts should teach children to value animals as they are, honoring the diversity, and necessity, of all kinds of beings. As the saying goes, it takes all kinds of kinds. 

Compounding this issue is the lack of animal subjectivity in children’s literature. Animals are typically portrayed through human perspectives, for human needs. This leads to the human habit of thinking anthropocentrically and results in our failure to imagine animals’ own experiences. Pro-environmental literature on the other hand, values animal wisdom, and recognizes that regardless of its use to humans, animal subjectivity has intrinsic value. 

Another issue surrounding the use of animals in children’s literature, is the portrayal of domestication. The animals that are most commonly found in picture books for example, are animals characterized by their domestication, as well as their closeness to and familiarity with humans, specifically urban children. When wild animals do appear, they are often not in their natural habitat. This dis/misplacement of animals is problematic, as it teaches children that animals are entities separate from their respective habitats and ecosystems. The recurrent representations of exotic animals is also identified as a key problem in children’s literature, as it robs children of the opportunity to form meaningful relationships with nonhuman others that they may actually encounter in their lifetime, and that live within their local environment. As such, texts that feature the real lives of local animals and organisms as best for the environmental educator.

(Timmerman & Ostertag, 2011)

Language Use in Children's Literature

 

The language used in children’s lit is another incredibly important consideration. Language frames the way we view and interact with the world, and as such, the way that texts discuss animals impacts children's perceptions of nonhuman others. For example, the use of the pronoun ‘it’, the use of industry names, like poultry, pork or cattle, to refer to animals as tools or products, using animal names as insults (pig, whale, cow, or shrimp), and using language that removes human accountability toward animals and the environment are all red flags for educators to watch out for. 

(Kimmerer, 2017; Freeman, Bekoff, & Bexell, 2011; Russell & Semenko, 2016)

Activism & Children's Literature

 

The promotion of environmental activism in children’s texts is another hot topic. Researchers argue that children’s books rarely discuss the interconnectedness of environmental issues, and do not bring up the need for government intervention and corporate responsibility. Children’s literature often oversimplifies environmental issues and separates them from larger systems, portraying them as easily fixed by individual lifestyle changes (the stewardship model is a great example of this). For example, many children’s books promote recycling but fail to mention the consumerist systems that result in so much waste. As a result, most children’s books assimilate into neoliberal, and capitalist society, rather than highlighting structural inequalities and marginalized others including animals and the environment. Environmental children’s books often present pro-environmental behaviours as hobbies rather than necessities, and do not discuss topics like environmental and social justice. When children’s literature does present pro-environmental behaviours, they promote individual lifestyle changes that position youth as apolitical and incapable, rather than promoting youth agency and activism in environmental movements, a stance that depicts children and young people as political subjects with the ability to grasp and act on complex political and economic issues. Sadly, many environmental children's books do very little to encourage beliefs and behaviors that will actually help us to quell the environmental crisis we face because of their over-simplification, overwhelming focus on individual acts and lifestyle changes, and unwillingness to address the relationships between environmental degradation and systemic social problems. For educators, this translates to a need for books that promote activities such as letter writing, awareness campaigns, youth rallies, and so on, books that provide our students with powerful strategies that can be implemented to address environmental issues. 

(Echterling, 2016)

 

Canadian Children's Literature

 

In the effort to promote environmentalism in our pupils, environmental educators should not overlook the importance of Canadian children’s literature. According to researchers, Canadian children’s literature often focuses on the landscape in their illustrations, depicting many examples of Canada’s terrain, contrasting the urban and virtual spaces many Canadian children experience daily. When children experience these places, their local or national landscapes, in literature, they become sensitized to them, which causes them to develop an ethic of caring. Picture books have the power to teach children about the environment and to connect them to place. As a result, children develop a sense of accountability, ownership, and responsibility toward said places. 

Additionally, by studying local nature in books, we are led into the natural world that surrounds us without requiring physical access to green spaces. This contrasts the modern movement in environmental education, which typically uses adults as the gatekeepers to nature. Generally speaking, children are often afforded access to nature in a highly controlled way, through supervised and structured lessons and activities. What is great about books however, is that reading books about nature can invoke a sense of wonder about the environment in children, and that is something that children can explore independently. 

 (Burke & Cutter-Mackenzie, 2010; Op De Beeck, 2018; Wason-Ellam, 2010)

 

Environmental Science Education & Children's Literature

 

In the science classroom, children’s books have immense benefits, and numerous uses. Children’s literature can be used to teach environmental scientific knowledge as well as ecological values. Books can be used as tools to make science more engaging by presenting scientific knowledge in more accessible formats. Traditional Western science is mechanistic, reductionist, impersonal, and frankly, dry, while literature is emotional, empathetic, and relatable. As such, many educators believe that the cultures of science and literature should be brought together in order to help students learn about science through literature, and learn about literature through science. This interdisciplinary, cross-curricular approach has the added benefit of creating a shared common vocabulary with readers from all disciplines, making scientific knowledge more accessible and less elitist. This contrasts today's scientific publications as they use terminology so specific that only experts in the field find the publication useful. 

Science fiction is an excellent example of this as books in this genre often present real science concepts in an accessible way, and pairs them with the social ramifications of scientific discovery. In this way, literature opens up the conversation about science to everyone. An added benefit is that reading about science and scientists allows students to better relate to the roles of scientists, and further, to picture themselves in those roles. Through literature, students engage with the journey of self-discovery as well as with scientific processes and methods. Working with science fiction can lead students to discover many genres of study including natural history, earth and space sciences, physics, technology, government, and so on, opening the door to fields of inquiry they may never have discovered otherwise.

(Rainbow, 2014; Caruso, 2014)

Book Selection 

Want more help? Download the handy book selection checklist linked below and use it while selecting books! Or click the link below to view a virtual book display!

Book Selection Checklist                     Virtual Book Display

References

Buell, L. (1996). The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of

     Harvard University Press. 

Burke, G., & Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2010). What’s there, what if, what then, and what can we do? An immersive and embodied experience of environment and

     place through children’s literature. Environmental Education Research, 16(3-4), 311-330. 

Caruso, C. (2014). Scientific Encounters in Literature: How the ‘Two Cultures’ Can Profit from Each Other In and Outside of the Classroom. In R. Bartosch &

     S. Grimm (Eds.), Teaching Environments: Ecocritical Encounters (pp. 37-57). Peter Lang GmbH.

Dobrin, S. I., & Kidd, K. B. (2004). Introduction: Into the Wild. In S. I. Dobrin, & K. B. Kidd (Eds.), Wild Things: Children's Culture and Ecocriticism (pp. 1-15). Detriot,

     Michigan: Wayne State University Press.

Echterling, C. (2016). How to Save the World and Other Lessons From Children’s Environmental Literature. Children’s Literature in Education, 47, 283-299.

Freeman, C. P., Bekoff, M., & Bexell, S. M. (2016). GIVING VOICE TO THE “VOICELESS”. Journalism Studies, 12(5), 590-607. 

Gaard, G. (2008). Toward an Ecopedagogy of Children's Environmental Literature. Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy , 4(2), 11-24. 

Glotfelty, C. (1996). Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis. In C. Glotfelty, & H. Fromm (Eds.), The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in

     Literary Ecology (pp. xv-xxxii). London: The University of Georgia Press. 

Kimmerer, R. W. (2017). Learning the Grammar of Animacy. Anthropology of Consciousness, 28(2), 128-134. 

Op De Beeck, N. (2018). Children’s Ecoliterature and the New Nature Study. Children’s Literature in Education, 49, 73-85.

 

Rainbow, A. (2014). Pedagogy and the Power of the Ecoliterary Text. In R. Bartosch & S. Grimm (Eds.), Teaching Environments: Ecocritical Encounters (pp. 37-57).

     Peter Lang GmbH. 

Russell, C., & Semenko, K. (2016). We Take “Cow” as a Compliment: Fattening Humane, Environmental, and Social Justice Education. In E. Cameron, & C. Russell

     (Eds.), The Fat Pedagogy Reader: Challenging Weight-Based Oppression Through Critical Education (pp. 211-220). New York, NY: Peter Lang. 

Timmerman, N., & Ostertag, J. (2011). Too Many Monkeys Jumping in Their Heads: Animal Lessons within Young Children’s Media. Canadian Journal of

     Environmental Education, 16, 59-75.

Wason-Ellam, L. (2010). Children’s literature as a springboard to place-based embodied learning. Environmental Education Research, 16(3), 279–294. 

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