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How to Save the World and Other Lessons from Children’s Environmental Literature

Winner of the 2015 Children’s Literature in Education Emerging Scholar Award

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. — Dr. Seuss, The Lorax


This article argues that most contemporary children’s environmental picture books and easy readers published in the United States focus overwhelmingly on individual environmentalist acts and lifestyle changes, overlook the connections between environmental degradation and systemic social problems such as class disparities, and ultimately over-simplify environmental crisis. They typically encourage children to adopt environmentalist behaviors such as recycling that can be performed by individuals or families in the home, school, and local community, but do little to encourage civic engagement that would call into attention the intertwined ideological, economic, and political factors preventing profound environmental change. The analysis then examines several books that notably do inform readers about the larger political and economic issues and place a strong emphasis on environmental justice, a type of environmentalism deeply concerned with issues of race, class, gender, and economic inequality. Such texts are more likely to encourage an environmentalism that combines lifestyle and consumer choices with political activism. We need more books like this, as children’s texts that resign environmental action almost completely to individual choices and behaviors and disassociate environmental crises from their larger constitutive contexts do little to prepare young people for the socio-environmental challenges we face now and in the future.

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  1. For example, see two articles published by Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE) in 2015: Saba Pirzadeh, “Children of Ravaged Worlds: Exploring Environmentalism in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and Cameron Stracher’s The Water Wars” and Brianna Burke (2015), “‘Reaping’ Environmental Justice through Compassion in The Hunger Games.”

  2. Gaard marks this beginning with the publication of two special ecocritical issues by the prominent children’s literature journals, The Lion and the Unicorn (1995) and Children’s Literature Quarterly (Winter 1994–1995) (2009, p. 325).

  3. This may also reflect the relatively marginal position of children’s literature within literary studies more generally.

  4. Results are from a search performed on May 7, 2014.

  5. Neoliberalism favors free-market capitalism with limited government intervention and oversight, and subsequently “tends also to reinforce and celebrate strong private, individual, and exclusive property rights” (Heynen et al., 2007, p. 5). Its supporters also frequently cite “political notions of liberalism with emphasis on the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities of individuals … typically posed in related to a monolithic state represented as singularly in opposition to the realization of individual freedom” (2007, p. 5). For analyses of neoliberalism and environmentalism, see Cox, “Golden Tropes and Democratic Betrayals: Prospects for the Environment and Environmental Justice in Neoliberal ‘Free Trade’ Agreements” and the edited collection Neoliberal Environments: False Promises and Unnatural Consequences (ed. Heynen et al., 2007).

  6. For extensive discussions of Maathai’s writing and the Green Belt Movement, see Nixon (2011) and Caminero-Santangelo (2014).

  7. Our Earth, unlike the others examined here, is published a small Canadian publisher, Second Story Press, but is available in the United States.


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Correspondence to Clare Echterling.

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Clare Echterling is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on environmental literary studies; evolution, degeneration, and the environment in late Victorian literature and culture; and children’s environmental literature. Her publications appear in Children’s Literature and FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture & the Arts.

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Echterling, C. How to Save the World and Other Lessons from Children’s Environmental Literature. Child Lit Educ 47, 283–299 (2016).

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  • Children’s environmental literature
  • Ecocriticism
  • Environmental activism
  • Environmental justice
  • Children’s environmentalism