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Can children's books help kids fight climate change?

We spoke to the author of a new book on the topic.

Liam Heneghan
Liam Heneghan

CHILDREN’S BOOKS AREN’T just full of pretty pictures – they can teach young kids about lots of things, like relationships, love, and even death.

But they can also teach them about the environment, something which Irish academic Liam Heneghan believes is hugely important in this era of climate change and extreme weather events.

Heneghan – who is based in Chicago and works at DePaul University – has written a new book called Beasts at Bedtime, where he explores how children’s literature can help young people learn about the world around them. And this, he hopes, will encourage them to care about the living world.

He has learned over the years that the parent doesn’t need to choose explicitly environmentally themed books in order to pass on a love for the natural world to their kids. In fact, some of the most common books to be found in children’s bedrooms can do the job perfectly.

In Beasts at Bedtime, he takes a look at books like Doctor Dolittle and Peter Rabbit, to see what they teach us about the natural world.

“I think those problems are more pronounced today,” says Heneghan of the environmental issues that abound in classic children’s literature.

“I think the future that kids are facing into as they are growing up are fairly profound. The way I think about this is that even though these books can teach explicit things about the way the world works and they do, mainly what they’re teaching the kids is a way of orienting themselves towards the world. Maybe even learning how to love the world for all of its flaws.”

“Even though you can get contemporary books that cover climate change, there’s no shortage of opportunities for parents to kind of talk about some of the more stressful things in life even while reading otherwise delightful stories,” he says.

Stories

Liam Heneghan Beasts at Bedtime Liam Heneghan Source: DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief

Heneghan was inspired to write the book after his two sons left home. While taking their libraries from their bedroom to the basement, he started to read their favourite books.

“I recognised there was a lot more environmental material in them than I really had thought about before,” he tells TheJournal.ie. “Being an environmental science teacher I’d been aware perhaps of the importance of stories in providing kids with environmental literacy, but it hadn’t struck me as strongly as it might at the time that they were getting a lot of the foundations of knowledge about the natural world from the books they were reading.”

“It seems to me you you can’t really save something that you haven’t learned to love in the first place,” says Heneghan. “A lot of these books are teaching kids how to care for the world around them before they have to get too worried about some of the more angsty scenarios for the future.”

But all of that being said, the mood in children’s literature is also committed to on the one hand wonder, but there is no absence of horror and despair in children’s literature. Even in the most bucolic of stories, mothers died for instance. Death is omnipresent in these stories, it shocked me when compiling the index for the book the prevalence of cannibalism in children’s stories. There is always this anxiety in fairytales.

Take Harry Potter, for example, where death abounds but child readers “might begin to marvel at their own capacities even they might have their own magical prop or aptitudes they never expected”.

“Children’s books don’t shy away from stern things or the loss of important aspects of nature,” says Heneghan.

The sort of things that might have been radical in the late 60s and then 70s are still the things that a lot of kids find appealing - Wind in the Willows, the Hobbit, and Irish mythological stories,” says Heneghan.

One of Heneghan’s favourite books as a child was Winnie the Pooh. “The story itself has so much to say about the relationship between that bear and the forest in which he lives,” he says. “So I started doing a pretty deep dive into Winnie the Pooh and realised there was an awful lot that could be said. A parent being nostalgic and reading nostalgically, but with the sensibility of an environmental scientist.”

What struck him”really forcefully” in doing the research for the book was “even at the time when a lot of these classic were written the authors themselves were aware the world was changing”, he says.

For example, Tolkien – author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings – had a lifelong obsession with trees.

“He was always angry about the changing in the British landscape, but most of his exposure was in Ireland rather than England,” says Heneghan. “He was an external examiner in Galway in the 50s and from there he spent a lot of time on the west coast of Ireland. That was an environment that seems to have perhaps influenced him and it was certainly his big exposure to wild places and the feeling of these places that seeped into books like Lord of the Rings.”

He says that children do have the appetite for stories – and it’s up to parents and teachers to help cultivate that appetite in children.

“Parents will automatically chose the childhood favourites and that’s fine,” says Heneghan. “My sense is most great storytellers seem to organically connect themes about the world around them into good story writing. I think parents should be just choosing books based upon whether the story is excellent and excellently told.”

But he cautions that parents don’t have to get stressed out when picking a new book for their offspring:

The last thing you want to do is turn story time whether in a library or school into some powerpoint lesson where you beat the kid over the head with an environmental tutorial.

“I’d forgotten how powerful the Peter Rabbit series was and I loved writing about it and re-reading it and also Wind in the Willows shocked me,” he says. “I don’t know what it is about that story that is so amiable, has so much to say about things and is so odd.”

“I think all kids deserve to fall in love with the world and I think all kids need to know enough to contribute to civil debate around it. I’m particularly emphatic toward the end of the book about what the challenges are.”

An alien in New York

In the book, he writes about being an immigrant. “About the fact I am a blow-in. It’s not a comfortable place at the moment to be.”

When he left Ireland in the 1980s, the US felt “really liberating” and the American dream felt like a real thing. But now, living in a world where Trump is President of the US, he says he’s feeling pressure as an immigrant.

“I’d say a lot of immigrants just felt this enthusiasm about this American project and what America represented,” he says. Things have changed. “I’m fed up with it,” says Heneghan. “But year after year I have these amazing students and that’s a real comfort.”

He hopes his book encourages people to see the connectivity between things around them: “To understand what a remarkable planet we’re on is something that transcends politics and transcends discipline.

Every young intelligent person should have their jaws dropping at the fascinating nature of the world we’re living in. And they do – but then it seems that it hasn’t floated up to some political [spheres].

Beasts at Bedtime is published by the University of Chicago Press.

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