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

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Shel­ley King is head of the De­part­ment of English at Queen’s Univer­sity in On­tario, sit­u­ated on tra­di­tional Anishi­naabe and Hau­denosaunee Ter­ri­tory.

By Liam Heneghan Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 256pp, £20.50

ISBN 9780226431383 Pub­lished 15 May 2018

In the past two decades, stud­ies link­ing chil­dren’s books to eco­log­i­cal con­cerns have pro­lif­er­ated – but you won’t find this schol­ar­ship re­flected in Beasts at Bed­time. Liam Heneghan tips his hand early in the study: “This book is…writ­ten by an en­vi­ron­men­tal bi­ol­o­gist in­clin­ing to­ward sto­ries, and not by a lit­er­ary scholar in­ter­ested in en­vi­ron­men­tal schol­ar­ship…I’d like to be clear to the reader that although I know there is an enor­mous, and in­ter­est­ing, tech­ni­cal literature on chil­dren’s literature, I am not pre­sent­ing an ex­ten­sive re­view of this work.” Thus lib­er­ated from the slog of crit­i­cal en­gage­ment, he is free to ex­pa­ti­ate on the sub­ject near­est his heart – his two grown sons just leav­ing home, and whether “their re­flec­tive lives as read­ers, their ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the out­doors, and their con­cern for our en­vi­ron­men­tal fu­ture” might some­how be con­nected to the books as­so­ci­ated with their child­hood.

Beasts at Bed­time is in many ways a gen­tle book, mov­ing be­tween mem­o­ries of the au­thor’s child­hood and that of his sons. It of­fers glimpses of a method­ol­ogy driven by gen­uine in­ter­est and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, sur­vey­ing clas­sics of chil­dren’s literature with a won­der that is fresh and pal­pa­ble. This approach ren­ders it in equal parts charm­ing and ir­ri­tat­ing. Read­ers will find sen­tences such as “It may sur­prise you – it cer­tainly sur­prised me – to learn that there has been con­sid­er­able philo­soph­i­cal at­ten­tion de­voted to gar­dens” ei­ther dis­arm­ing or an­noy­ing.

They will re­gard as­ser­tions such as “Ev­i­dence is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing that ac­cess to out­door ex­pe­ri­ences is vi­tal for chil­dren’s phys­i­cal and men­tal health” ei­ther as new and use­ful in­for­ma­tion or as mere tru­ism. And when Heneghan as­serts en­thu­si­as­ti­cally that Win­nie-the-Pooh be­comes “an in­for­ma­tive case study of the con­nec­tions be­tween a child and land­scape” if it is read along­side Christo­pher Milne’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy The En­chanted Places, they will ei­ther yawn or be amazed, de­pend­ing on their own fa­mil­iar­ity with the Hun­dred Acre Wood and its his­tory.

To be fair, there are mo­ments when see­ing fa­mil­iar texts through the eyes of an en­vi­ron­men­tal bi­ol­o­gist proves fas­ci­nat­ing: Heneghan’s as­sess­ment of Where the Wild Things Are be­gins with a book on cave art of the Pleis­tocene from which he pro­duces a tally of the bio­di­ver­sity of the Chau­vet Cave: “Thirty-four li­ons, 27 rhi­nos, 23 horses, 13 bi­son, six mam­moths, five au­rochs, three cave bears, two deer, and one spec­tac­u­lar owl,” giv­ing the caves a score of 1.77 on the Shan­non Di­ver­sity scale. By com­par­i­son, he finds only seven an­i­mals rep­re­sented in Sen­dak’s story, giv­ing it a score of 0.3, sug­gest­ing a trou­bling lack of fauna for which Sen­dak com­pen­sates by plac­ing the crea­tures in a var­ied land­scape. Heneghan reads The Lit­tle Prince as “a ver­i­ta­ble in­struc­tion man­ual in good plan­e­tary main­te­nance” and sug­gests that “The ‘dream events’ of The Lit­tle Prince are, some­what sur­pris­ingly, pri­mar­ily eco­log­i­cal, and yet few read­ers will re­call just how en­vi­ron­men­tally as­tute the fa­ble is.”

This is a book for bed­time, en­join­ing your re­laxed at­ten­tion rather than stren­u­ous en­gage­ment, roam­ing as­so­cia­tively through mem­ory and re­flect­ing on the im­por­tant role played by chil­dren’s books in shap­ing adults with an em­pa­thetic in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world. Some­times we just need re­mind­ing of the im­por­tant things we al­ready know: “Par­ents: con­tinue to in­form your­self about en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, sur­round your chil­dren with the de­lights of na­ture, and en­cour­age their at­tune­ment to an­i­mals and plants. Par­ents, chat with your chil­dren about books.”

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