Revised proposal Draft 1

RDSC-R (2001) 1000 words

4.1 Title

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

4.2 Aims of the Investigation

This exploration of literature for 3-7 year olds published in England since 1967 (the UK publication of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) aims to:

  • Consider the structural and thematic debt to the traditional tale with respect to the outdoors;
  • Investigate the cultural and natural origins of the topography of the outdoors;
  • Explore the ways in which authors and illustrators choose to represent  the outdoor environment, from the fantasy landscapes of traditional tales (“fairytales”) to depictions of the everyday – which may or may not carry their own messages and assumptions;
  • Examine the narrative requirement for adults to be absent or powerless and how that might impact on the depiction of the outdoors.

To provide a foundation for this work, however, key areas of young children’s literacy practices will also need to be addressed, for example:

  • Under what circumstances (or whether) young children access books independent of adult choice and interpretation;
  • The ways in which children make sense of narrative elements such as character and setting;
  • The impact of policy and practice in Early Childhood Education around children’s reading/enjoying stories in picture books.

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.

4.3    Proposed plan of work

Introductory Remarks

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. Most ecocritical exploration of literature has concentrated on adult or older children’s literature,[1] although some inroads have been made[2], and film criticism has begun to study young children’s worlds in a similar way – see, for example, the work of David Whitley[3]

This work has relevance as policy-makers, commentators and educators continue to debate the place of the outdoors in children’s lives. Thomas and Thompson[4], for example, are not alone in advocating use of the outdoors at a time when “Beliefs about the inherent hostility and danger of public spaces are commonplace” (p4), while at the more extreme end of advocacy for the outdoors, Louv[5] writes about “nature deficit disorder.”

There is, however, some debate to be had on the nature of the “outdoors” that is being advocated here; some writers, e.g. Waite[6], have identified an element of nostalgia in adult ideas of what should be provided for children, and this study will have to address this issue in asking about how adult authors/illustrators themselves choose to represent outdoor environments.

Work Plan

My initial proposal having been accepted, reading and discussion with supervisors and colleagues – including a presentation on “Where is the Outdoors in Children’s Literature” to the Westminster Institute Research Conference[7] – are helping she my views, and in particular facilitating the crucial decisions about focus (see below). I have had a paper accepted on Nostalgic Representations of the outdoors in young children’s literature in he work of Janet and Allen Ahlberg for the International Research Society for Children’s Literature[8] this Summer. Work towards this paper will contribute to my undertsnaing of one of the key themes I need to explore: how illustrators choose setting (temporal and spatial) when representing the fantasy elements in children’s picture story books.

By the Autumn of the next academic year (Sept 2011) I will have completed a wide reading of primary texts, to aim at identifying ways of refining my field of study, and begun exploring the critical literature.

Authors and illustrators currently working are increasingly represented in critical overviews, biography and autobiography[9] and websites[10].  Insights of authors and illustrators themselves cannot be overlooked, but is, necessarily, personal, and their views consequently diverge: while some writers (such as Michael Foreman[11] ) have been explicit about how they use their work to depict the environment, often with an “environmental” message, others (such as Allan Ahlberg[12] ) suggest that memory of a particular place has been a point of inspiration.

This crucial period would seem to need at least a year, but would allow me to look at authors and illustrators own representations of their approaches, as well as look at other 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. This would necessarily entail looking at literary theory and work destined for older readers.[13]

With this stage complete, I could aim for M Phil > PhD transfer in Autumn 2012

In the later stages of this work, methods will remain focused on the children’s literature, but will also explore other, complex issues of narrative in the outdoors, notably the  motif (again with roots in traditional tales) of absent or powerless adults. The connections here with classic work on attachment theory[14] might be contrasted with the more problematic elements of traditional tales, and the interpretation of them in psychoanalytic/therapeutic contexts[15].

Spring 2016 remains, therefore, a target for submission.


[1] Harding J, Thiel E and Waller A (eds) (2009) Deep into Nature: Ecology Environment and Children’s Literature. Lichfield: Pied Piper

[2] Lesknik-Oberstein K (1998) Children’s Literature and the Environment in R Kerridge and N Sammels (eds) Writing the Environment. London. Zed Books

[3] Whitley D (2008) The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation. Aldershot and Burlington VT. Ashgate

[4] Thomas G and Thompson G (2004)  A Child’s Place: Why environment matters to children. London. Demos/Green Alliance

[5] Louv R. (2006) Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

[6] Waite, S (2007) Memories are made of this: some reflections on outdoor learning and recall Education 3-13, 35, 4: 333 – 347;see also Guldberg H (2009) Reclaiming Childhood. Abingdon. Routledge

[7] Swarbrick N (2010) Where is Outside? http://nicktomjoe.brookesblogs.net/research-and-consultancy/where-is-outside/ accessed 08/03/2011

[8] International Research Society for Children’s Literature. http://www.irscl.com/ accessed 08/03/2011

[9] Blake Q (2002) Laureate’s Progress. London. Jonathan Cape; Burningham J (2009) John Burningham .London. Jonathan Cape

[10] Child L (nd) The Official Lauren Child Website. http://www.milkmonitor.com/ accessed 08/03/2011

[11] Foreman M (2009) , “Picture Books and the Environment: A Lifelong Concern” in J Harding, E Thiel and A Waller (eds) (2009) Deep into Nature: Ecology Environment and Children’s Literature. Lichfield. Pied Piper

[12] Ahlberg, A (2006) Janet’s Last Book. Printed for private circulation by the author

[13] For example Byerly A (2002) Rivers, Journeys and the Construction of  Place in Nineteenth-Century Literature in S Rosendale (2002) The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory and the Environment. Iowa. University of Iowa.

[14] Bowlby J (1953) Child Care and the Growth of Love. Harmondsworth. Penguin Books.

[15] Bettelheim B (1976) The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. London. Thames and Hudson

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