Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature

Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature

by Liam Heneghan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226431383
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 566,651
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 16.60(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Liam Heneghan is professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. He is a Dubliner, an occasional poet, a tin whistle player, and a father of two grown children to whom he read every night of their early years.

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Beasts at Bedtime


There are times when Skyping with my father that, for a moment or so, I confuse his image on the screen with mine. We are both gray-haired now and bearded, and though his facial wrinkles are more deltaic than mine, the resemblance between us is close enough to fool me briefly. After all, in my first memories of him, he was fully eight times my age. Now that gap has shrunk, and he is less than twice as old as me. But for the saving graces of some sort of Zeno's paradox of aging, I might catch up with him soon.

Those first memories of my father are of him reading to me. Or rather, they are of him reading to all of us, in turn, seven pages each. In the earliest memories, there were three of us, later six. We would be in my sisters' room, each tucked in, me at the tail end of my sister Anne's bed. Clare, the eldest, was first, then Anne, and then me, each of us indifferent to the stories read to the others. Clare pulled on our father's earlobe, sucked her thumb, and listened. By my turn he was often sleepy, though if he nodded off, he was prodded back to his duties. I can still recall some of those early stories. There was Ben Ross Berenberg's The Churkendoose (1946), an unfortunate creature, ambiguously part chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. There was Noel Barr's Ned the Lonely Donkey (1952), the farmyard beast who does his best to make friends. There were also plenty of books of rhymes, books on animals in prehistory, and bird books. We also read the heroic Irish stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill, his warrior Fenians, and his poet-soldier son, Oisin, whose mother, Sadhbh, under an enchantment, took the form of a deer. I loved the old stories of Cu Chulainn, the boy who kills a hound and takes its place as a guard dog.

Some years later, my teacher Mr. O'Leary would read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) in school as a reward for good behavior. I was enchanted by the story, so my father bought me a copy, and it became the first volume to give me that distinctive pride that comes from possessing a special book. From my reading of The Hobbit, I date my love of woodlands, a love that has shaped much of my life. Two decades later, I read to my eldest child from that same special copy.

Those bedtime stories, read in the crevices of the day's end, were meant to prepare us for a night of that twitching repose that passes for childhood sleep. But looking back on them now, the nightly stories also irrigated our imaginations, preparing us for the day that followed. They steadied us for the small tribulations of school and primed us for expeditions to the outdoors of garden and neighborhood and, during the weekends at least, our visits to the beaches of Dublin.

Though we began with lonely donkeys and confused wildfowl, some years later my father and I scrutinized nature guides together, learning the names of actual creatures and their habits. My father was always deeply interested in nature. As an amateur malacologist, or student of mollusks, he used to bring us to the beaches of the eastern Irish seaboard on Saturday mornings to search for shells. We would pile into his old Morris Oxford and spend the morning scouring the Dublin sands, looking for surf-heaved treasure, our guidebooks at the ready. Of course, mornings after storms were best, meaning that these tended to be wintry expeditions. We patrolled deserted strands under gray skies, just beyond the reach of the apocalyptic fingerlike chimneys of Poolbeg power station, which dominated Dublin Bay. I don't recall that we were especially scientific in our collections, even though, in addition to guidebooks, my father had weighty monographs on the topic about the house, monographs whose wonderful illustrations we would pore over with him. To this day, I know the Latin binomials of most mollusks of the Irish coastline.

My father kept a saltwater aquarium, which I am told is quite difficult to maintain. The hermit crabs, my favorites, mostly kept to themselves — for such are the ways of crabs — though they would come out to devour morsels of ham. Once a year, the family bath was repurposed as a tank for raising tadpoles. The first truly scientific text I read, in fact, was on the life cycle of the frog. As their frog legs emerged, we would provide lollipop sticks as floating islands, and they would crawl out of the shallow water upon them, recapitulating the first moments of terrestrial life. They, too, had a taste for ham. I once saw a frog emerge from our back garden and look at me as if trying to place a memory, before leaping into the street beneath an oncoming car and making a soft, though audible "pop."

We kept pets and studied books on their maintenance. We had budgies (parakeets), rabbits, and a tortoise named Bert. Bobby the budgie had the somewhat understandable, though wholly unforgivable, habit of clinging fiercely to his perch on one's finger while taking a shit. His little pink feet would burn with the evacuatory strain. I don't recall this problem mentioned in Enid Blyton's Adventure Series, books that I had devoured years earlier, where Jack's parrot Kiki was more a helpful conversationalist than a muttering mess-maker.

Bert the tortoise was a special favorite of my mother's. He would scamper, to the best of his ability, to meet her, his nails clicking on the pavement like a nervous lover tapping on a windowpane. Bert liked to have his throat scratched: he would extend his head upon the improbable stalk of his neck toward her, and my mother would oblige. He went missing one late autumn. We assumed, based on our reading of a book on tortoise care, that he had hibernated in the garden. When we found him much later, our hearts were broken, as it was clear he had upturned himself and died on his back, beyond the help of the family that cared for him. Bobby's passing was also a torment. He was slaughtered, in his birdcage, by a cat who managed to open the clasp of its door. I did have one defense against these dismal existential events. By the time of the flattened frog and Bert's and Bobby's sad demises, I'd been mainlining dozens of nature books that filled my head with many details about the sterner aspects of ecological life. I learned to expect to find death in nature.

When people ask me what experiences made me want to be an environmental scientist, I usually think first of adventures with pets, shell collecting along Dublin's strands, maintaining the aquarium with my father, and much later the college summers I spent collecting insects in Ireland's national parks. But it seems clear to me now that time spent indoors, reading and being read to, had an equally powerful effect on me. Reading introduced me to nature — the sort of ordinary but wholly involving nature I encountered right outside my door.

I've been thinking about the environmentally salutary implications of children's books a lot lately, and not only for their value in minting the next generation of naturalists. Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods (2005) has launched a movement encouraging this more sedentary generation of children to get outdoors, but I wonder if there might also be an environmental benefit to be gained by fortifying those intimate indoor moments when parents read to their children. Are there special books that parents should choose for the Great Indoors? Are there special ways to read them?

Having now spent considerable time examining the content of contemporary children's bookshelves — visiting the local library, compiling and analyzing lists of children's classics, chatting with friends and neighbors who have small children — I have come to the conclusion that reading about nature might be simply unavoidable, since it is hard to find kids' books that are not about our feathered and furry friends or their prehistoric ancestors.

Of course, in an important sense, every book ever written is about nature. Even a writer as arcane and minimalist as Samuel Beckett knew he was reflecting on the environment. In Beckett's novel The Unnamable (1953), the eponymous narrator is alone, despite his promise that "I shall not be alone, in the beginning." He goes on: "I am of course alone. Alone. Things have to be soon said. And how can one be sure, in the darkness?"

Beckett's story could not be more spare, more replete with loneliness, hopelessness, emptiness, and despair. But despite the stripped-down nature of the story, The Unnamable is essentially a meditation on nature: the nature of the human body and its physical and social needs, and the natural world as conjured up by mere utterance. "In the world of nature, the world of man," the narrator asks, "where is nature, where is man, where are you, what are you seeking?" To those readers who find this work uninterpretable, John Calder, Beckett's publisher, asks them to consider "how well they understand not only their own lives, but what they see when they look out at the world; how they interpret what they see, little of which could be understood anyway." The Unnamable is thus not only about nature but is itself like an object of nature, simultaneously presenting itself and receding from human apprehension. If this is the case, then the canon of nature writing could be broadened. In the end, it might be more difficult to decide which great novels aren't environmental classics.

I recently examined the lists of the top novels of the previous century, including an especially influential one published by the Modern Library, to contrast the prevalence of nature as a theme in adult literature and in books for children. And indeed, given time and ingenuity, one can make the case for most novels on the adult list being a little tinged by green. Even, for instance, the obscure farce Zuleika Dobson (1911), by Max Beerbohm, a witty tale set in Oxford of a mass undergraduate suicide for the sake of love, has occasional environmental touches. For example, two black owls ominously perch on the battlements of the Duke of Dorset's hereditary home, Tankerton Hall, portending his death. Frankly though, an attempt to find the environmental significance becomes strenuous, and the connection is, I suppose, quite tenuous. In the end, one must concede that there are not many novels on the Modern Library's list that qualify explicitly as environmentally themed. One that certainly makes the cut, however, is Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903): the hero is a dog named Buck, who initially lives comfortably in California, but who is sold as an Alaskan sled dog and adaptively sheds his domesticated traits. Though London had not necessarily intended it to be for young readers, The Call of the Wild remains popular with teenagers and might be considered a cross-over adult/young adult classic. George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) qualifies too, though presumably we readers know that his primary purpose is to tutor us on fascism, not induct us into the ways of the barnyard.

Yet there are no great strains of interpretation needed to find nature in children's literature. I performed the same analysis of comparable lists of the best children's literature, relying heavily on lists provided by the National Education Association. I reviewed the titles in every age category and scored them for their environmental relevance. Being the father of two children, I knew many of them already, but I also reviewed those titles that were new to me. I found that a full 100 percent of books recommended for preschoolers are environmentally themed. And not in the way that Beckett's The Unnamable or Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson are environmental. No, these titles include The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) by Eric Carle, which is quite simply about a very hungry caterpillar. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Carle, is about what the said bear and other animals see. The Rainbow Fish (1992) by Marcus Pfister is about the development of social behavior in a very colorful fish. And The Runaway Bunny (1942), written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd, is about a rabbit tempted to bolt from home and his mother, who is determined to follow him. Nature is everywhere in the preschooler canon.

The proportion seems to slip steadily as children get older. Sixty percent of the 36 books recommended for four-to eight-year-olds feature animals or are in other ways concerned with nature. For the nine-to-twelve age group, it's just over 50 percent. However, it's fair to say that all of the (admittedly much smaller selection of) books for young adults could be described as promoting environmental sensibilities in its readers. These include the aforementioned ecologically rich The Hobbit; Summer of the Monkeys (1976) by Wilson Rawls, in which a young boy attempts to return chimps to a traveling circus; and The Cay (1969) by Theodore Taylor, a survival tale set in the Caribbean Sea.

When I look back at it now, my father's choice of reading material for us was not simply an expression of his own inclinations. Sticking to the classics, it would have been impossible for him to avoid reading to us about nature.

Although children's books are emphatically nature-themed, the animals in them are often anthropomorphized. Only rarely do popular books written for the youngest children provide accurate natural history information. The caterpillar, brown bear, fish, and bunny in children's books do not behave in species-appropriate ways. One doubts, for instance, that in ordinary circumstances a colorful fish would be overly concerned with the hurt feelings of friends, nor would that fish, I suppose, engage an octopus as a life coach. It would seem that animals give voice to an adult world that wants to inculcate children with commendable virtues. Therefore, might animals play a starring role in children's books independent of children's particular interest in animals? After all, how better to socialize the young human animal than with tales of other well-behaved animals? In this model, as the child gets older and becomes more successfully acculturated, there is less of a need to invoke our animal pals, which explains why we see nature fading out of children's literature as they grow older.

There is now, however, compelling evidence that children's interest in animals might reflect innate desires of their own, rather than some adult indoctrination scheme. The ecopsychologist Olin Eugene Myers Jr. from Western Washington University has written that, for children, "the animal emerges ... as a truly subjective other whose immediate presence is compelling." Vanessa LoBue and her colleagues at Rutgers University and the University of Virginia published a research paper in 2013 showing that children under four responded preferentially to live animals — fish, hamsters, snakes, and spiders — than to "interesting" toys. The children gestured more frequently to the animals, talked more to them, and asked more questions about them, and parents encouraged this interest.


Excerpted from "Beasts at Bedtime"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Liam Heneghan.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Section One: On Reading
            The Existential Princess: A Fairy Tale
1 Beasts at Bedtime: Reading about Nature with Children
2 Doctor Dolittle and the Question of Reading

Section Two: Pastoral Stories
3 The Pastoral Promise: And They All Lived Happily Ever After
4 The Ecology of Pooh
5 Peter Rabbit’s Brutal Paradise
6 In the Garden of Earthly Delights
7 Beyond the Pool of Darkness: The Pastoral Roots of Irish Stories

Section Three: Wilderness Stories
            Lost in the Popo Agie Wilderness
8 On the Mallard
9 Where the Wild Things Always Were
10 Wild and Grimm Fairy Tales: Wilderness on the Margins
11 “Gollumgate”: Tolkien and Ireland
12 “I Am in Fact a Hobbit”: Tolkien as Environmentalist
13 The Tin Woodman’s Path of Carnage through the Land of Oz
14 Hunger and Thirst in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games

Section Four: Children on Wild Islands
            Old Tom’s Island
15 The Why and the What of Islands
16 Archmage Ged, Merlin, and Harry Potter and the Training of Wizards and Witches
17 Is L. T. Meade the Real Author of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five?
18 Robinson Crusoe: Now Here’s a Cannibalism Tale for Every Child
19 On Isles Benevolent; on Isles Malevolent

Section Five: Urban Stories
            The Urban Wild
20 The Urban to Rural Gradient of Children’s Stories: The Happy Prince
21 Antipathy to Urban Life in Nursery Rhymes
22 Urban Decay: R. Crumb in the Nursery
23 The Escape Artist: Calvin and Hobbes and the Suburban Idyll
24 Babar: Elephant and Urban Adapter

Section Six: Learning to Care
            And the World Hummed Back
25 Caring for the Rose: Environmental Literacy and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince
26 What Then Should We Do? The Lorax in the Twenty-First Century

Section Seven: Good Night, Sleep Tight
            In the Tot Lot
27 Bookend Conversations

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