Research proposal Summer 2010

Following the initial, largely informal explorations I have undertaken of themes around woodland and children’s stories in internal papers and using my brookesblogs space, I want to look at this issue:

What themes can be discerned in the depiction of the outdoors environment in young children’s picture books?

The research literature around young children is growing, and similarly there is increased interest in young children’s use of the outdoors. The originality of the research contribution lies in two main areas: a use of critical perspectives on literature within the constructions of early childhood and the identification of key themes in children’s literature that deals with the outdoors. It is in joining these two sets of insights together that the research has, I believe, a real contribution to make to the academic disciplines of (Early) Childhood and Children’s Literature.

It also has pedagogical implications, in that a growing amount of literature (much of it impassioned advocacy, the rhetoric of which has roots in Romantic and post-Romantic literature) suggests that children (and their parents) are finding access to outdoor play problematic, and that what is sometimes seen as a ‘natural’ (the word itself has implications that this study might explore) access is now being facilitated in a number of ways by schools. Arising from the study, therefore, are allied questions around how adults present the outdoors to children.

However, I would like to take the critical standpoint of viewing the books I consider as part of a sub-genre of literature rather than as pedagogical tools. This gives the focus back to the author and text/illustrations, and would allow me to explore the works in more critical depth, drawing on historically embedded themes from traditional tales (Jacobs, Grimm, Perrault, in critical work such as Zipes and Beckett), as well as psychoanalysis (Donald Winnicott, Sigmund Freud, Eric Berne) and current literary theory, particularly recent developments in ecocriticism, applied directly to young children’s literature.

A number of lines of enquiry initially suggest themselves as worth following:

•         A narrative requirement for adults to be absent or powerless;

•         The role of animals: companions and adversaries, anthropomorphism and the need (?) for dialogue;

•         The topology of the outdoor “world” in which stories are located;

•         The structural and thematic debt to the traditional tale.

The absent/weak or inattentive parent is already discussed in a number of sources, but would need to be revisited specifically in the light of the issues of selection of the texts (see below); there is, for example, a huge difference in the level of ‘danger’ in Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (where the father is always present) and McKee’s Not Now Bernard (where distracted parents are devoured by the wild monster from outside).

Animals, real, historical and mythological, present a complex case, as companions (which brings into focus work on the status of animals as pet-friends) and as totems of the outside. It would be interesting to explore how animals from outside (such as wolves: see my comments here) are represented as inimical and whether they therefore come to stand for some whole image of “outdoors.”  Anthropomorphising animals – a theme met with most strongly yet also with considerable ambiguity in Red Riding Hood – also represents a technique employed by authors for a number of effects from comic (Jeremiah in the Dark Wood)  to uncanny (Wolves in the Walls), and is something explored in the growing literature on human and non-human animal relations.

The topology of the outdoor setting is something I have already explored, both in my paper in Deep into Nature and in more depth in an internal paper on werewolves. In Neil Philip’s collection of English Folk Tales, stories are very often linked to place, sometimes with humour, to mock a rival village, sometimes quite chillingly, as in the case of ghost stories. It may be in stories of the uncanny  we come back to people explaining ruins, unpicking half-forgotten histories, even feelings of discomfort in recounting stories that seek to account for a the sense of place. The most common approach seems to me to be where the storyteller simply places the story in a setting that is somewhere/nowhere/everywhere. Red Riding Hood is set in an everywhere forest – although the migrations of the story will account for this dislocation. The same wood might be the setting for the three little pigs, or even (given the same Grimm-into-England migration) where Rapunzel is kept prisoner.  In this way all stories end up being set in the same wood, the same wolves predating the same vulnerable creatures. This is exploited with delight by Janet and Allan Ahlberg in The Jolly Postman books and, for slightly older readers in Jeremiah in the Dark Wood. Discussion of topology leads to – or springs from – an understanding of the links between modern text and traditional tale, a theme running strongly through this paper.

Jack Zipes and Sandra Beckett’s work has a number of points to commend it, but differs from my proposal significantly in terms of focus; while they concentrate on one story, Red Riding Hood, I would want to change the emphasis to encompass a wider range of young children’s literature. I acknowledge the connections between young children’s literature and traditional tales (‘Fairy tales’), and, while this leads to some fascinating intertexuality – as in books such as Childs’ Beware of the Storybook Wolves –  the connections are not always immediate – as in Gaiman’s The  Wolves in the Walls. Kelley poses an exciting question here: “If folk and fairy tales are supposed to convey universal truths or validate the past, why do storytellers change the stories?”  Reconstruction of traditional stories (whatever their provenance) may take the form of rewriting the situations or reactions of the characters (see, for example Rodari’s A sbagliare le storie or Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes) but also occurs more subtly, for example in journey motifs such are represented as the Ahlberg’s Bye Bye Baby.  In the light of the question I suggest, this research would have to look at  books which explicitly use themes, characters  or form from traditional tales about the outdoors (or set away from the home), and could explore the considerable interplay between the two genres.

At the same time, I acknowledge that selection will be crucial, and initially propose concentrating on works drawn from literature aimed at 3-7 year olds published in England since 1967 (the UK publication of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are). Further specification will be necessary, and concentration on a small number of particular texts would allow me to explore in more detail the issues an overview might raise.

Nick Swarbrick

Beckett S (2002) Recycling Red Riding Hood. London: Routledge.
Coupe L (ed) (2000)  The green studies reader : from Romanticism to ecocriticism. London: Routledge.
Harding J, Thiel E and Waller A (eds) (2009) Deep into Nature: Ecology Environment and Children’s Literature. Lichfield: Pied Piper
Hunt P (ed) (2005) Understanding Children’s Literature. (2nd edition) London: Routledge
Kaplan R, Kaplan S (1989) The experience of nature: a psychological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Kelley J (2008)  Power Relationships in Rumpelstiltskin: A Textual Comparison of a Traditional and a Reconstructed Fairy Tale. Children’s Literature in Education 39:31–41
Louv R (2006) Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books
Meek M, Warlow A and Barton G (1977) The Cool Web: Patterns of Children’s Reading. London: Bodley Head
Philips N (1992) The Penguin Book of English Folktales. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Porteous A (2002) The Forest in Folklore and Mythology. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications
Porteous J (1990) ‘Childscape’ in Landscapes of the mind. Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Propp V (2nd ed. 1968) Morphology of the folktale. Austin: University of Texas Press
Rae, A (2003) Take my breath away: Why the outdoors may be an effective repository for spiritual development, Horizons, 23: 12 – 14
Schama S (1995) Landscape and memory. London: HarperCollins
Simmons I (1993) Interpreting nature: cultural constructions of the environment. London: Routledge
Taylor P (1986) Respect for Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P
Torr, J (2007) The pleasure of recognition: intertextuality in the talk of

preschoolers during shared reading with mothers and teachers Early Years, 27, 1: 77–91

Tyler T and Rossini M (eds) (2009) Animal Encounters. Leiden: Brill
Wilson, RA (1995) Nature and young children: A natural connection Young Children, 50,6, 4-11
Zipes J (1994) Fairy tale as myth/myth as fairy tale. Lexington : University Press of Kentucky

Proposed time line

Proposed actions Date for completion
i.  Initial proposal accepted, supervisor identified, initial reading undertaken, initial research question given further “shape”. Nov 2010
ii. Overview of literature: wide reading of primary texts undertaken, to aim at identifying ways of refining field. Summer 2011
iii. Critical literature explored: critical and historical insights on children’s literature and the outdoors; ecocriticism and the Romantic movement and their influence on depictions of the outdoors; modern theoretical (philosophical and psychoanalytic) perspectives on outdoors. Summer 2012
iv.  M Phil > PhD transfer Autumn 2012
v. With a smaller body of literature identified, work exploring this smaller sample in the light of work done in iii. This includes the development of key themes to be explored. Autumn 2014
vi. Writing up and submission of thesis Autumn 2015/

Spring 2016

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