Environmental Caretakers in Children’s Literature

Eco concept. Half-burned planet in form of candle on the space b

As a teacher and mother, I am often called upon by children for big world advice, and sane moral guidance. I take this role to heart and honour it. And yet, as with every older generation, I am a student of the 21st-century child.  Their joys, fears, and insights. The ways in which they dream in a modern world. The thought process and sensory experience of imbibing digital media as though it has always existed.

But what about as a writer? Should writers really be telling kids what to do?

Writing a book in Australia is an act fraught with politics. If you let it be. And perhaps this is true of most places. And it’s not an uncommon dilemma. But if I had a cup of tea with Roald Dahl or E.E Cummings or Kenneth Graeme would they share my view? Empathise?

I want kids to like my book. I want them to find it funny. Turn the page. Feel the hand of their favourite character upon their shoulder. I want the writing to be good. Gentle. And not didactic. And yet, try as I do to relax into storytelling for the pure joy of it, I am drawn even more strongly to the role of the story as instructive. Somewhere in the deeper parts of my being a patient elder has her hand on my shoulder. And her grip is firm.

Children do not need more entertainment. Children need to know the truth.

So. What can I offer? I  know a little about a little but I am no elder. Should I become one? How much should I know before I try to impart? When is it enough?

Everyone knows that to try to cram every vision, ideal, and existential reflection into one piece of work is a mistake. And something writers need to be aware of particularly with the first novel. Writing wants to be an encyclopaedic broadcast of experiential insight closely mirroring personal biography, but It can’t be. It must be patient. It must serve. It must do the work.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that entertaining stories, (regardless of the originality of ideas,) make by far the most commercially successful children books, I am convinced that important contemporary messages can be woven into engaging widely read (and let’s face it, marketable) stories.  But texts which showcase social values can often feel contrived and risk alienating a young reader even further. So how have others managed it?

I take pause and remember. Issues of social and ethical and environmental concern have long made it into the pages of books. The Ents were angry with good reason, one relevant in the material world, both then and now. And yet most would not consider Tolkien an environmentalist at first glance.

Hearing writers like Ursula Le Guin, and Patricia Wrightson speak about environment, philosophical standpoint, the ways in which they have navigated social commentary and taken an elder stance in their writing inspires me. And also makes me wish I was writing in the fantasy genre. For it is in those worlds where things are actually possible. Not the blunt edges and rigid silences of history books. Still, perhaps the genres can meet through the framework of mythology.

Following Tolkien’s lead is as always, a good place to start. As a devoted folklore scholar Tolkien drew from the source when crafting stories. Mythic frameworks are a beautiful means for weaving issues of importance into story, while still being able to locate these stories in the material world. Care for the environment is a basic human concern across all traditional cultures. When we find these stories in myth, they don’t feel didactic. The Druids, Australian Aborigines, Shamans, indeed all nature religions from Asia to Eastern Europe, to the tribal rites of Africa. It’s the first rule of myth. Look after your world and she will look after you.

So how do we entertain like Griffiths, enchant like Rowling, and still tell a story of Australian history with an environmental motif? Others have managed it. I don’t find it easy material. But it is appropriate for kitchen spoon wavers.