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Possum magic? Children's books and our affinity with Australian species

Viki Cramer - Saturday, November 12, 2016

Australian children’s book have a deep tradition of embracing local plants and animals. Could this make Australian kids more likely to care about the conservation of our native flora and fauna?  

 

Over the past weekend, my son and I have been collecting fallen marri nuts from under the trees across the road from our house. My husband has diligently drilled holes through them so that they can be made into gum-nut necklaces. In a couple of weeks, my son’s class will perform a play based on May Gibbs’ classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie at the school assembly, after seeing a theatre performance based on an adaptation of Gibbs' books.

His class could have chosen from a long list of Aussie children’s classics that feature our fauna and flora. Australians have access to such a rich and varied children’s literature that embrace our native species as central characters that it’s easy to assume that this is the case everywhere.

Yet it is not. A study led by Juan Celis-Diez of Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica in Valparaíso of the books available at an international children’s fair held in Santiago found that fewer than 8% of the books depicted native Chilean fauna. In their paper, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the authors argue that the poor representation of local flora, fauna and environments in the children’s books they surveyed may have far-reaching implications for both children’s appreciation of local biodiversity and for conservation.

Developmental psychologists have found that children who read about wildlife have higher levels of interest and affection for wildlife and the environment than children who don’t. And while the best way to help children connect with nature is obviously to just get them out into it – be it a national park, nature playground, backyard bird count or the vacant block down the street – books can help children discover and connect with wildlife that take serious time and effort to actually see in the wild. The rare, the nocturnal, those that dwell in the desert or the rainforest thousands of kilometres away from home are waiting for you at bed time.

 If we are to begin to connect with nature beyond a simple appreciation of ‘green spaces’ in a way that reflects the concerns of conservation biology, then being able to put a name to a plant or animal matters. While much evidence shows that access to nature, in its broadest sense, improves our perception of well-being, little evidence exists that the measures of concern to conservation biologists, such as species richness and diversity, have any impact upon how good we feel. This is because most people have a limited capacity to perceive such objective measures of their environment unless they can name the species they see around them.  

Being able to name wild plants and animals gives children a greater appreciation of the species they encounter in their everyday lives, even the inconspicuous ones. Fostering a species-rich, place-based children’s literature might help children to name, appreciate and ultimately care about the conservation of native species in their wider environment, beyond the limited range of charismatic fauna that is frequently the focus of the media.

The character, narrative and even – dare I say it – the anthropomorphising might also help kids to understand complex ecological problems in a way that pure ecological description cannot. In fewer than 25 pages, Ali Garnett and Kaye Kessing’s Easter Bilby covers themes such as the invasion of exotic species and the different ecological ‘character’ of rabbits and bilbies (fast and greedy Flash Rabbit versus the caring, light-on-country nature of Bilby), as well as introducing the reader to numbats, chudditch (western quolls), burrowing frogs and zebra finches.

And maybe, just a little bit, children’s literature gives grown-ups permission to joyously reconnect with the character we used to see in animals (and if you’re like me, in plants as well) that, as objective adults, we may have been encouraged to leave behind. For what other animal, apart from a wombat, could sit obstinately at a boarded-up back door after eating every carrot in the garden and ruminate:

Offered carrots at the back door.
Why would I want carrots when I feel like rolled oats?
Demanded rolled oats instead.
Humans failed to understand my simple request. Am constantly amazed at how dumb humans can be.


Me too, Wombat, me too.

 

Sources:

Mem Fox and Julie Vivas (1993) Possum Magic. HMH Books for Young Readers.

Ali Garnett and Kaye Kessing (1994) Easter Bilby. Published by Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation of Australia and Endangered Species Program, Feral Pests Program of the Australian Nature Conservation Agency.

Wombat ‘quote’ from Jackie French and Bruce Whatley (2007) Diary of a Wombat. Harper Collins.

Image from Dot and the Kangaroo http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18891/18891-h/18891-h.htm, via Wikimedia Commons

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Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
Dr Viki Cramer
Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
Perth, Australia
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