Popular literature gives different answers to how we can be aware of the environment and nature, a new doctoral thesis shows.
“The authors I studied agree that a change is needed in the ways we behave towards nature, but they do not agree on what those behaviours should be,” says Berit Huntebrinker.
She is a researcher at the University of Agder (UiA) and recently received her doctorate there.
Her thesis examines four picture books for children and three comics. All are written and illustrated by Norwegian authors and illustrators. The texts were published from 1974 to 2019.
• Tor Åge Bringsværd (text) and Thore Hansen (illustrations): Det blå folket og karamellfabrikken (picture book, 1974)
• Bente Roestad (text) and Ann Christin Strand (illustrations): Blekkulf blir miljødetektiv (picture book, 1994).
• Lise Myhre (text and illustrations): Nemi (comic, 2010) (5 strips)
• Terje Nordberg (text) and Arild Midthun (illustrations): Donald Duck (three stories: 2010, 2011, 2012)
• Antonella Durante (text and illustrations): Nina lærer gjenbruk (picture book, 2018)
• Josef Tzegai Yohannes (text) and Steve Baker (illustrations): The Urban Legend (comic, 2019)
• Kari Stai (text and illustrations): Jacob og Neikob: Stormen (picture book, 2019)
A central question for the researcher was whether nature has intrinsic value or if it is just something to be used for our own ends.
“I examined how the characters in various texts look at nature, and what thoughts and ideals about nature are represented in text and images,” the researcher says.
Her reading is based on what comparative literature calls an ecocritical perspective. In short, it means to see how literature portrays our relationship with nature.
“The texts selected emphasise in different ways that we have a moral duty to use less, recycle more and take better care of nature,” Huntebrinker says.
Five of the seven texts have the clear purpose to teach young people to respect nature.
“Some of the texts are directly educational. They are quite moralising. Others are more open and inviting. They leave it up to the reader and the characters in the book to judge the content for themselves,” Huntebrinker says.
She singles out Blekkulf as an example of a moralising text:
“The character, Blekkulf, is designed to teach young people how to protect the environment. Educating the reader is the primary goal. And there is little doubt about what the right and wrong actions are,” the researcher says.
The national curriculum emphasises that three themes must be included in the teaching of all subjects in Norwegian primary and lower secondary schools: sustainable development, democratic citizenship, and public health and life skills.
An important part of the thesis deals precisely with citizenship. Huntebrinker looks at how the main characters in the texts are presented as citizens who are responsible towards nature.
The majority of the texts are characterised by the individual having responsibility for nature but being free to choose what measures they want to use. She calls this, in accordance with political science theory, a liberal type of citizen.
“It doesn't surprise me. Children's books and popular literature are often simplified presentations, and the individual is often the focus in popular literature,” she says.
She mentions the Donald Duck comic book as an example of a story where the hero is given personal responsibility for cleaning up environmental problems.
“In an individualistic perspective like this, there is less room for political responsibility for changing society. Collective responsibility and overall social organisation fall out of sight,” says the researcher.
She highlights Det blå folket og karamellfabrikken (1974) as one of the most artistically interesting books in the study. The book is written by Tor Åge Bringsværd and illustrated by Thore Hansen.
Bringsværd too stresses individual responsibility and the freedom to choose how you want to protect nature. But he also emphasises the collective responsibility.
The researcher calls the latter a republican citizen, still using concepts from political science. For such a citizen, society's common laws and rules count for a lot.
“With Bringsværd, the group, the blue people, works together to protect nature. The author and his main characters are deeply aware of the challenges we face from pollution. At the same time, they are radically critical of the social and political conditions of Norway in 1974. The book picks at both the lack of individual responsibility and the societal conditions,” the researcher says.
The blue people in Bringsværd’s book wake up a sleeping town to make the inhabitants aware of the serious air pollution from the local caramel factory.
“The townspeople have to decide whether they want to close the factory or continue making caramels,” Huntebrinker says.
She reminds that Bringsværd calls his work ‘fable prose’, a term that he coined.
“Fable prose means that history comes in disguise so to speak, as a reflection of something else, to tell us something about our lives. By using fantastic elements and strange events, the author helps us see our own lives in a new perspective,” the researcher says.
She encourages a nuanced and critical reading also of children's books and popular literature.
“A nuanced reading is fruitful and necessary to fully appreciate the complexity of children's literature, also when it comes to the presentation of different views about our responsibility for nature,” Huntebrinker says.