Childrens' Literature Changing Settings

This post is far more academic than any of my others, so reader, be warned. (cross-posted to

While studying my B. A. at the University of Manitoba in the mid to late 80's, I fell in love with Canadian Literature (CanLit). Courses with David Arnason and Dennis Cooley, encounters with Robert Kroetsch, and had the opportunity to hear Timothy Findley, W. P. Kinsella, Kristjana Gunnars... ok, I'll stop name dropping now. I was particularly enamored with prairie lit and, through it, developed a tremendous respect for my own ancestors who settled here more than a century earlier. The sense of place, the character of the land, struggles to carve out a life in these wild but fertile spaces caught my imagination.

Research of settings in children's literature (KidLit) reveal a trend away from natural to constructed spaces; stories take place in and explore more urban settings, or have plot lines in which setting is secondary or unrelated to the main action.

“Nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments have all but dis­ap­peared,” wrote Uni­vers­ity of Nebraska-Lincoln so­ci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus J. Al­len Wil­liams Jr., and col­leagues, re­port­ing their find­ings in the jour­nal So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal In­quiry. The books they assessed were all win­ners or hon­or re­cip­i­ents of the pres­tig­ious Calde­cott Med­al for chil­dren’s books.

While the sample is relatively limited, the time span is great (>80 years), and the percent change is less than 10%, it points to issues worth exploring. How does KidLit influence a child's world view? Does exposure to natural spaces affect individual senses of environmental stewardship? These questions speak to KidLit's role as communicator of larger community and world values.

Root & Kiefer point to the influences of 18th century thinkers and philosophers for the start of,

a transition from the deliberate use of purely didactic literature to inculcate moral, spiritual, and ethical values in children to the provision of literature to entertain and inform
Children's Literature - History, Literature in the Lives of Children, Environment, Awards
Arguing, in those early days, that children's enjoyment of reading may be more important than the content, a trend began to create more fanciful stories that engaged and entertained the young reader. Nevertheless, nonsense-type stories still communicated understandings of relationships, community obligations, and morality of the time.
In the less globalized, more rural life of the time, it follows that story settings were tied to nature: farms, gardens, countrysides, grass and trees, birds and wildlife. Life today is spent in large urban settings, or in virtual online spaces. Exposure to nature may be limited to retention ponds in suburban developments, or a city's heavily groomed postage-size green spaces. Urban development often means bulldozing established natural spaces and reorganized into manicured spaces replanting a micro-fraction of the original foliage and habitat that was there before. The message is that nature is messy, dirty, and needs fixing: avoid until sterilized.
For students living in urban settings, reading Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn gave a sense how to live in nature, what it felt like, what you could do, how important it was to our species. Bridge to Terebithia feeds a similar need with the imaginary play spaces amongst the trees and streams. Increasingly more, children are growing up in created or virtual spaces with increasingly less exposure to the natural world.
Like adults, children show preferences for natural settings and report that nature offers restoration and relief from stress (e.g., Korpela, 2002; Simmons, 1994; Wells & Evans, 2003).
Are the restorative effects of engagement with nature as strong when experienced vicariously through literature? I admit to only having read the abstract for Ann-Marie Begley's "Literature, Ethics and the Communication of Insight" but it speaks to an intuitive understanding of vicarious experiences through literature. Readers experience strong emotional responses to stories that may be may guide real-life decision making and empathic responses in the future. I seems reasonable to believe that vicarious engagement with nature would have the same effect. Literature with natural themes and settings nurtures in the reader an appreciation for the marvels of the natural world.

I'm not one to cry wolf, nor am I a Luddite standing in the way of progress. I even stopped decrying the evolving nature of language recognizing that it has always changed, and that understanding, while facilitated by convention, need not be limited by it. Nevertheless, it concerns me that children are not experiencing nature in the wild, as it were. In the spirit of The Story of Stuff, we must understand the impact of human action and consumption on our host planet.

I know it's a big leap to make: urbanizing settings in a few dozen children's books to the demise of the human species, but it is a conversation worth having. Where do children get their nature fix? How can children's literature fill that gap? Should this understanding be reflected in school reading lists? Lots of questions, few answers.

At home with The Boy, we are fortunate to live in a rural-ish area with a mini forest and lots of space to roam and explore. I will, though, be more thoughtful about including nature-oriented stories more frequently.

What do you think? Share you thoughts below...

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