Where is Outside?

Modern UK representations of outdoors would bring us to a huge number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Even to restrict this to young children, or to define the field by publication dates does not help much.  This paper seeks to explore the representations of outdoors – mostly visual –  in the context of traditional tales. This is not to say that outdoors in other contexts are not also powerful, but I acknowledge the short time frame of this presentation.

What messages do adults choose to give young children about the outdoors by looking at the context for our traditional tales?  When we come to what many people would regard as central to the ‘canon’ of traditional tales – Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Snow White – our vision becomes blurred. The ‘outside’ is universal – or at least pan-European – because the stories themselves come via Grimm and Perrault, from rural France and Germany. This everywhere and nowhere is informed by the (a?) Romantic idea of nature, and the attempts to shape the landscape to reflect it, by the Agrarian Revolution and changes in land use, and by the models of childhood we employ: we begin to be able to categorise what this outside looks like?

There are woods, rivers and human settlement, drawing on what ‘we all understand’ as rural romanticism – what Bate calls “The Great Pastoral Con-Trick.”  The work of Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Tony Ross and Quentin Blake tends to represent this as recognisable as an English pastoral landscape – the illustrations are aimed at English audience.  All three sets of authors/illustrators take a sideways glance at this, however: Blake’s contribution to illustrating traditional tales or traditional settings in nursery rhymes comes from choosing alternative versions of nursery rhymes from the Opie collections, or depicting key elements from Roald Dahl’s deliberately iconoclastic retellings in Revolting Rhymes, &c.  Even so, he chooses Edwardian dress and key markers from the English landscape.   Ross, in contrast, enjoys modern references (TV aerials and cars), although in his retelling of Goldilocks, we seem stuck in the 1950s. In the work of the Ahlbergs we see English pastoral – from works such as Cotman and Nash –  represented so glowingly it might almost be seen as ironic. We are at once the “anonymous traveller” and a very knowing interpreter of the landscape, recognising and connecting features from our background in traditional tales.  We do not come here as strangers.

The beginnings of an understanding about why we value both nature (perhaps crudely meaning outside)  and childhood are to be found in posing questions about why modern representations of traditional tales are often full of time-play, of nostalgia and anachronism, and what is it about out literary and/or societal constructions that require danger to include ambiguous roles for adults outdoors?

What emerges from this very brief overview is that I believe there is a place for a deeper, richer interpretation of place as a major factor young children’s literature. Authors might explore what is meant by nature but through them we can explore what is meant by childhood.

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