Natural Environments Disappearing from Children’s Literature

Recently, my friend author Samantha Clark shared a link to a USA Today article I would recommend to all of you. It is titled Study: New Children’s books lack reference to nature, animals

In it, the journalist presents startling results from a multi-university study of Caldecott winners and honorees between 1938-2008. The impetus of the study was to identify the current trend away from natural settings in children’s literature. Their results proved their hypothesis. Early in the twentieth century, 40% of the subject books were set in natural environments. By the end of the study, in 2008, only 25% were. A quick peek at the list of Newbery winners since 1922 reflects similar trends. Not surprisingly, the best place to find natural settings is in historical fiction and nonfiction. Why? Natural environments are being gobbled up in the name of progress. But, it hasn’t disappeared completely.

The big picture concern is that if we don’t expose our children to the natural environment, allowing them to fall in love with it, how can we expect them to be the stewards for their planet? It may be especially important for urban kids who don’t have the opportunity to touch, smell, feel the wonders of nature. Allow them to be exposed to it through literature. I’m not suggesting we force our children to read certain titles that don’t appeal to their individual tastes. That would be counter-productive to instilling a love of reading. But, if we don’t at least present options, we’re taking away their power to choose.

I’m the mother of two radically different sons. My older son gravitated to fantasy books when he was younger. Books by T.A. Barron, Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett come to mind. But, all these years later, he can still recite, with great detail, the emotional tug of FRIGHTFUL’S MOUNTAIN.  His younger brother, on the other hand, reads every Gary Paulsen, and Jean Craighead George book he can get his hands on. His favorite books are set in natural environments.  Currently, he’s impatiently waiting for his copy of the third installment of Roland Smith’s STORM RUNNERS series. Young one is outdoorsy. He begs for more books set in and about natural environments. He’s hungry for it. And he’s not alone. Yet, we don’t often hear from editors that they’d like to see more books set in a natural environment. Why not?

Writers can’t predict trends in the publishing industry. Yesterday, vampire and werewolf stories sold well. Today, is it paranormal? Dystopian? Fairies? Mermaids? Killer Kumquats? Who knows. But, I argue that there will always be a place for and a need for books set out there in the big outdoors. If, like me, you’re a writer who would rather write your characters into a forest or mountain setting, go for it. Ignore the trends and write what your inner muse is directing you to write.

I know one kid who will thank you.

In 2009, I wrote a related blog post quoting Richard Louv’s LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, the very book that inspired this USA Today article. You can find my post here.