Title: The Didactical Project of Children’s Literature in the Anthropocene
Abstract: Since its beginnings, children’s literature has been bound up with didacticism. Seth Lerer for instance, discusses how already during the heyday of the Greek and Roman period, young people were introduced to exemplary episodes from the Odyssey and the Iliad, displaying exceptional bravery or proper moral behavior, with an aim to “the making of the child as a citizen” (Lerer 18). Although children’s literature has come a long way since, in 2023, with the unfolding climate crisis rearing its many ugly heads, the notion that children’s literature should contribute to producing proper citizens by offering exemplary tales of individual agency still persists, albeit in a new ecological jacket (see for instance Marianne Presthus Heggen et al.). In this paper, I argue that the idea of citizenship and the concept of individual agency with which it is inextricably linked, is no longer valuable in the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch marked by humanity’s (in reality: Western capitalist society’s) impact on the planet. The emphasis the term ‘Anthropocene’ places on a whole species complicates the issue of individual agency, while at the same time it provokes a whole new set of imaginative challenges. Instead of reading for exemplum, scholars of children’s literature should ask how literature triggers a child’s imagination to think beyond the mental restraints that brought us to this turning point. In other words, how do the texts and images of children’s literature formally and stylistically stimulate the imagination to address issues of scale, non-human agency, human/non-human entanglement, international, intergenerational and interspecies justice? How does children’s literature help children imagine a viable future when most adults can no longer imagine one? Inspired by Kimberley Reynolds’ notion of radical children’s literature, a children’s literature that “contributes to the social and aesthetic transformation of culture by, for instance, encouraging readers to approach ideas, issues, and objects from new perspectives and so prepare the way for change” (1) and armed with examples from picturebooks and adventure fiction, I present a novel way of understanding the innate didacticism of children’s literature for a new era.
Heggen, Sageidet, Goga, Grindheim, Bergan, Krempig, Utsi, Lynngård. Children as eco-citizens?. NorDiNa: Nordic studies in science education, 15,4, 2019, pp. 387-402.
Lerer, Seth. Children’s literature: A reader’s history, from Aesop to Harry Potter. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Reynolds, Kimberley. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Bio: Jonas Vanhove is a PhD-student at Ghent University working on his PhD-project titled ‘Narrative, Metaphor and Metamorphosis: The Ecological Potential of Contemporary Children’s Literature’. In 2020, he graduated from Ghent University summa cum laude. In 2021, he was awarded a special research fund by Ghent University and in 2022, he obtained an FWO-fellowship. His interests are children’s literature, ecocriticism and cognitive literary theory.