We are living, say both scientific and popular literature, in a new epoch. The “Anthropocene” describes a period of human impact, outside of natural variability, on the Earth’s environment and ecosystems.
The term is hotly debated in scientific circles, and not officially recognised in geological terms. However, the idea that we are searching for another way to classify our relatively recent effect on the planet is sobering. Not surprisingly, the term now appears widely in popular culture and literature, as we try to construct meaning around a new view on our place in history. And our future.
Also not surprising is the effect of environmental concerns on children’s literature. In a 2018 article in the Books and Arts section of the journal Nature, British author S.F Said reviews ecologist Liam Heneghan’s book, Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature. Said describes Heneghan’s argument; that books can help children deal with the “grim eventualities” of a world where nearly twenty-five percent of mammals are threatened or extinct. While Beasts at Bedtime focuses on early classics, according to Said, it suggests that children learn environmental literacy and a deeper understanding of, and engagement with the natural world from books.
As an example of the environmental theme’s importance to children’s literature, Heneghan is described as stating that 60% of books recommended for 4-8 year-olds feature animals or nature, and that 50% of books for 9-12 year-olds involve relationships with nature.
Heneghan’s book references the work of author Richard Louv. “Last Child in the Woods” is a study of the effect of “nature deficit” in today’s children. Said describes Heneghan’s position, that not only is direct exposure to nature essential for children, but that books have always enabled a vital connection between children and environmental empathy.
Given that empathy is described by developmental psychologists as a cognitive, as well as an affective skill, perhaps the power of environmentally themed literature goes beyond the emotional. Using narrative and stories around nature can be a way to develop critical thinking in young people. Or any of us. A way to unpick and analyse the complexities of our world. Not only ‘hands on’ environmental engagement and activism, but reading our way through the Anthropocene.
Said, S.F. 2018. “Where the wild tales are: how stories teach kids to nurture nature”, Nature 556, 434-435, 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04932-5 doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04932-5
Heneghan, Liam. (2018) Beasts at Bedtime. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo25153600.html
Louv, Richard. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/