The Nature of my PhD

By Ross

The true value of stories is the way in which they offer children images and ideas that help them join up the ecology of their inner worlds, or selves, with the ecology of the outer world – not the world of economic, political and cultural constructs and measurable, result-based goals, but the older, wilder worlds of stones, woods and water.

(Strickland, T. in Harding, J., Thiel, E. and Waller, A., 2009, p. 19)

Children’s literature, almost from its inception, has been deeply invested in drawing connections between young readers and the natural world. Indeed, “nature and the natural world have long been inherent features of children’s literature – from the clear seas surrounding R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1857), to the nurturing, enclosed space of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden (1911) and the wild landscapes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials” (1995 - 2000)” (Harding, J., Thiel, E. and Waller, A., 2009, p. 1).

Throughout my life, I have long had an affinity with the natural world, an affinity that was partially conceived from my experiences of literary texts in my early childhood. Indeed, many of my earliest literary memories concern all manner of anthropomorphic beings, including Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Toad, a plethora of existent animals like those depicted in Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood (1979) and otherworldly creatures such as those depicted in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). As a primary school teacher, I enjoyed the privilege of introducing young readers to a multitude of literary texts, of which a number have concerned the same anthropomorphic characters and sentient beings that I had experienced in my youth.

Whilst I already miss reading with children on a daily basis, as a  consequence of undertaking my PhD, I aspire to produce a dissertation that will explore the possibilities of children’s literature, as a stimulus for young readers to endorse a similar empathy towards the natural world. Furthermore, by comprehending the ways in which children’s literature can stimulate a greater understanding of environmental issues, I want to explore how these texts can persuade young readers to preserve the planet’s fauna and flora, not only for themselves, but also for future generations. Needless to say, I am under no illusions when it comes to the effect that one PhD dissertation can have on policy pertaining to environmental education. Nevertheless, if I can inadvertently inspire a greater appreciation of children’s literature, as a window into the natural world, then, much like Mole in The Wind in the Willows (1908), I will be able to spread my chest “with a sigh of full contentment.”

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Primary Sources:

Ballantyne, R. M. (1857). The coral island. Edinburgh: W & R Chambers.

Burnett, F. H. (1911). The secret garden. London: Heinemann.

Dann, C. (1979) The animals of Farthing Wood, London: John Goodchild.

Grahame, K. (1908). The wind in the willows. London: Methuen.

Potter, B. (1905). The tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. London: Frederick Warne & Co.

Pullman, P. (1995). The northern lights. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, P. (1997). The subtle knife. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, P. (2000). The amber spyglass. London: Scholastic.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the wild things are. New York: Harper and Row.

Secondary Sources:

Harding, J., Thiel, E. and Waller, A. (2009). Deep into nature: ecology, environment and children’s literature. Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing.

Strickland, T. (2009) Ecology, the environment and children’s literature, In J. Harding, E. Thiel and A. Waller, Deep into Nature: ecology, environment and children’s literature, (pp. 17-19) Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing.

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