Can books boost children's environmental literacy?

Liam Heneghan
Liam Heneghan draws from his experience as a father and environmental scientist to uncover lessons about nature in classic and contemporary children's books. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
How can favorite children's books - from "Peter Rabbit" to "The Hunger Games" - teach valuable lessons about nature and the environment? As a father and an environmental scientist, Liam Heneghan takes on this question in his new book, "Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature." Heneghan set out to create a curriculum for parents and teachers, but what he discovered, he says, was much more interesting.

What inspired you to write "Beasts at Bedtime?"

It happened when both our kids were grown up and launched in the world, and I had this experience of locking the doors at night. It's a weird feeling, instead of locking your kids safe in bed at night, you're locking your kids out. It hit me really hard, and we were also repurposing their bedrooms. I was transferring their books down to the basement, and I was going down this nostalgic road remembering all the really fun conversations these books had inspired.

I set out to do a more didactic mapping of environmental concepts in children's books. But what I found was that there really is pretty much every dimension of environmental literacy embedded in classic children's literature.

How do you define environmental literacy?

The literature is very mixed on this. For me, it's any component of any discipline in front of which you can stick the word environmental. Environmental literature, philosophy, science, ethics. It's a pretty broad sweep of disciplines. Each one helps us understand how the world works, and how we should orient ourselves toward the world and appreciate it, love it and do right by it and by ourselves.

What did you learn about popular children's authors and how they oriented themselves to the environment?

There's so much informal curriculum embedded in children's literature, and it is not accidental. It turns out a lot of these writers are explicitly environmental in their thinking. J.R.R. Tolkien was motivated by concerns about the British countryside as he created the legendarium, the work that forms the basis for "The Lord of the Rings." He would be considered authentically to be a conservation-oriented writer.

Beatrix Potter was a fungi expert and had a paper on the reproductive behavior of fungi that she wasn't allowed to present to the Linnean Society because she was a woman. She was frustrated that her efforts in the natural sciences weren't getting her anywhere. When she turned to writing the "Peter Rabbit" books, she was taking her keen sensibilities as a scientist and trying to craft these fictions around it.

Suzanne Collins, the author of "The Hunger Games," is not an accidental environmental writer. She learned a lot about the out of doors from her father, who was a U.S. Air Force Veteran. We can read "The Hunger Games" as a new take on classic wilderness survival story. Nineteen percent of the novel is her finding water, and that doesn't come out of a vacuum. It comes from a writer who's very attuned to what the character's needs are.

A lot of parents are worried about their children dealing with environmental challenges, like climate change. How can reading boost kids' competency in learning about these issues?

Regardless of the problem that you know your kids are going to be confronted with, kids have to feel they have a stake in the beauty of the world. They have to love this world and understand this world that they're living in. They have to have a genuine, authentic understanding of what it is to be human. Which of course is why we're reading them stories in the first place. It's not easy for every parent to articulate it, but stories help us become human. And children's stories do that exceptionally well, while smuggling in this environmental curriculum that adult books have dispensed with. In children's books, representation of animals and nature are everywhere. In the adults' books, you get accidents and war. All of us should be reading a steady diet of young adult literature.

For more about "Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature," visit http://bit.ly/BeastsAtBedtimeUC.
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