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Children’s Ecoliterature and the New Nature Study


This essay explores how nineteenth-century nature study principles inform a twenty-first century New Nature Study movement, and gives examples of a trend toward nature writing in recent picture books. The pedagogical principles of nineteenth-century nature study, ascendant at the turn of the twentieth century and implicit in interwar children’s literature, yielded to a model founded on Cold War competition rather than environmental stewardship. In mid-century narratives for children, technological progress prevailed. In the 1990s, the ideals of the first nature study movement reemerged in a call for meaningful conservation to sustain future generations. Like the original nature study, the New Nature Study arises from anxieties about industrial development, habitat loss and extinction, and hazards to childhood itself. The New Nature Study treats children as agents for change and citizens being denied their full human rights when their land, soil, water, and lives are bought and sold.

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  1. Kevin Armitage (2009) and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (2010) elaborate on Bird Day and on how schoolchildren of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century were encouraged to understand and foster nature while learning natural history and practical farming methods. Meanwhile, Sally Shuttleworth (2010) and Alice Boardman Smuts (2006) trace the concurrent, early-twentieth-century rise of what was known as Child Study, with a focus not on children physically present and active outdoors but on children’s psychological development. Where Nature Study might be said to have looked beyond the individual and at collective experience, perhaps, Child Study interiorized and institutionalized the vision of the child and in many ways is how, culturally, we still think of childhood today.

  2. Geographer and cultural critic Carolyn Finney (2014) explores how American environmentalism has been perceived as a white enclave despite the contributions of people of color. Thus, when we look at present-day billboards and ads featuring diverse children enjoying the forest, we find multiple problematic subtexts despite an overt message of inclusion. Billboards, print ads, and online images, which market nature to children and adults, sell an equitable, accessible vision of the outdoors, indirectly acknowledging the previously white-associated nature study movement.

  3. See Sharon Smulders (2016).

  4. See Matthew Teorey (2014) for an account of how Wallace Stegner’s use of the word “unless” in his writing to federal policymakers and academically-minded adults parallel’s Seuss’s deployment of “unless” as a rallying cry for young readers in The Lorax.

  5. Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert (2012) collect essays that model a shared engagement in the natural world among people of different ages.

  6. See op de Beeck (2017) on “Environmental Picture Books” and the late-twentieth to early-twenty-first century movement toward nature literacy, in line with project-based and experiential learning in science education.

  7. In the age of the New Nature Study, environmental justice issues are finding their way into generally non-controversial, crowd-pleasing children’s publications in the U.S. This suggests shifting cultural attitudes toward environmentalist goals, not to mention respect for children’s subjective agency, political viewpoints, and economic clout. A 2014 cover story in Scholastic News, for instance, encourages young readers to question whether SeaWorld and other marine parks should keep orcas in captivity. The article, titled “Should the Show Go On?”, recognizes the killer-whale documentary Blackfish and grassroots youth activism concerning whales and dolphins in entertainment parks (Bubar, 2014, pp. 4–5).

  8. Around 2015, publishers noted an increasing interest among children (and people who buy books for children) in nonfiction, and some attributed this to education trends like the recent Common Core State Standards in the U.S. (Rosen, 2015). The New Nature Study and the State Standards themselves could signal a shift toward a renewed concern for fact-based (even if still fictionalized) children’s literature and media, often with attention to environmental crisis and forgotten knowhow. See also Sanders (2018) on young nonfiction readers’ active and agential subjectivity (as opposed to passive receptivity) around fact-based texts.


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Correspondence to Nathalie op de Beeck.

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Nathalie op de Beeck is the author of Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). She is an Associate Professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University.

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op de Beeck, N. Children’s Ecoliterature and the New Nature Study. Child Lit Educ 49, 73–85 (2018).

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  • Picture books
  • Environmental movement
  • Nature study
  • Ecoliteracy