What controversies surround environmentally themed literature taught to grades K-12 in America?

What controversies surround environmentally themed literature taught to grades K-12 in America?


Starting in the 1970’s, Americans began to realize that they were negatively impacting their environment with a wave of awakening that led to the creation of Earth Day. While legislation had been passed in the 1800s regarding air pollution and animal protection, primarily in Great Britain, the modern environmental movement really took root in the United States with the writing of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, and only gained more strength from that point on. In the arena of schooling, environmental education got a massive foothold in the United States in 1990, with the passing of the National Environmental Education Act which allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to make educational decisions at the federal level in regards to school curriculum. Prior to 1990, environmental education in the classroom was mainly structured around literature that was published by known environmentalists or environmental organizations, which were often at odds with previous methodologies.

During this time frame, the rise of environmental literature grew. In 1971, Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” was published and quickly brought the issue of the environment into the hands of young readers. As conservation and protection became more polarized and political, the controversy of the movement began to carry over into a debate about environmental education within classrooms, using appropriately themed children’s literature. In present day, three main controversies still surround the usage of and teaching from environmental themed children’s literature within grades K-12 in the United States.

Is environmental literature part of a long term plan by environmentalists to teach future generations of voters to abandon their community’s economic well-being in favor of the environment?

One common argument found in regards to children’s environmental literature is that the lessons taught will turn adult against child within the community and home. Michelle Abate sums it up nicely when she says, “Environmentally themed literature for young people often challenges this long standing association.” (2012, 57) Nowhere is this argument seen more concisely than surrounding the children’s book The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Author Teorey explains, “The vivid  illustrations  and  evocative narrative  make  the  topic  engaging  to  children  and  adults,  allowing  Seuss  to accomplish what [Wallace] Stegner hoped to but did not—popularize environmental activism and ingrain its importance in future generations” (Teorey 2014 325). Opponents of environmental children’s literature argue that the field is biased due to having been initiated by environmentalists who sought to teach the future generations about the damage being witnessed. Threats against the livelihoods of parents and communities were so feared that in Laytonville, California, a move was promoted to ban the book altogether due to the story being anti-logging in nature. (Abate 2010 54) 

There was even a push to create an alternative book: Truax. Abate writes, “Learning, perhaps, from the previous failed effort to have The Lorax banned in California, or realizing instead that attempting to take a beloved picture book away from small children is not the best public-relations strategy, [the author] opted for a different approach.” (2010 55) In the alternate story, the logging industry is promoted as positive, and doesn’t pollute, creating a counter idea to the original theme presented by Seuss.  According to Timberline Magazine, 200,000 copies of the book had been distributed to schools in an attempt to counteract the possible corruption of the young against the consumerism of their parents.

Children who are reading environmental literature are beginning to view the world using a new view. Instead of Dominant Western Worldview, which promotes the idea of humans being dominant over nature, or the Human Exceptionalism Paradigm, which doesn’t give weight to biophysical realities because it’s focusing on how humans are exceptional as a species, children are beginning to demonstrate the New Ecological Paradigm (Meyer 2002 277). Their viewpoint utilizing this new education is that humans are not "better than" other creatures. The question of environmental ethics is beginning to have weight in the decisions that the next generation will make. According to Thomas Whartenberg, “Environmental ethics has become increasingly significant, as the need to address global environmental issues becomes urgent and unavoidable” (Whartenberg 2013 91). Because of this change in perspective, the adult assumptions of humankind’s place in the world appear to be challenged by children's literature that is environmental in nature. This challenges their parents’ livelihoods in some cases, as well as their spending habits, and ideas of economy.

Is encouraging environmental literacy in schools a way to inadvertently pressure parents to adopt “green” habits?

As children develop and understand their individual identities, inside the classroom and outside as well, they also begin to perceive the group identities in which they belong and roles within those groups. Through exposure to environmental children’s literature, a child can investigate the human condition as one that is either rooted in domination over the Earth or one that is capable of expressing cooperation and community. In analyzing environmental children’s literature within education, Gaard writes, “if the logic of domination is rooted in alienation and the myth of a separate self, then undoing this logic would require narratives of connection, community, and interdependence among humans, animals, and the natural world” (2009 327). The side effect of this self-realization is that children will often return home to share what they’ve been taught to their families since they are the child’s first community. In this way they become advocates for change within their homes. Some find this advocacy inconveniencing, annoying, or even disrespectful, such as Jonathan Adler, who refers to “the “eco-smart” child who constantly pesters his parents…” (1992 22). Others argue that children cannot be sheltered from the adult world entirely, and the literature helps them to adapt and prepare to an ever-changing field of knowledge regarding the Earth. For example, in writing about the necessity of education on how to create change once an adult, Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel say, “Radical children’s literature raises questions about those in power; in doing so, it often calls into question accepted understandings of childhood in terms of how much a child can know, and how much power a child gets to have” (2011 447). Proponents of children being the front line of generational change realize that these are the problems that children will be facing as adults, as well as realizing that the greatest impact for change that a child can have is within his or her own family. Opponents of this argue that children shouldn’t be exposed to mature topics, or that they cannot grasp them correctly.

Is environmental literature in the classroom aimed at encouraging critical thinking or simply appealing to emotion?

It cannot be denied that environmental education is critical to the science curriculum throughout grades K-12 in the United States, however, the concern regarding literature in this respect is focused on whether that literature is driven by fact or emotion. In a study conducted by Rebecca and Leigh Monhardt, a sixth grade class was taught curriculum that included a children’s environmental literature book that was chosen specifically because of the emotional weight of the story. Included with this literature was a science unit focusing on the facts regarding the animals and biospheres featured in the book. When the students were at the end of the course and were asked to give the reasons why they supported or didn’t support the animals that the book and science unit both featured, the children chose their side depending on the emotions of the book, even after being asked to provide facts that they learned in the science unit to support their stand (2000 178). This is an area where opponents to environmental education in the classroom have plenty of ammunition. In addressing the possible origins of bias within the environmental educational curriculum, which includes the publishing of environmental literature, Michael Sanera states that the early publishers of the literature weren’t aiming so much to “educate children about the environment, but instead worked to instill in children the desire to "save" the environment through personal choices and political activism” (2008). However, some educators are making headway in pushing back against this bias. In having his classroom analyze the simplicity of The Lorax, Bill Bigelow used the literature to walk them through analyzing the major themes in order to learn about how those issues actually appear in the real world. While this wouldn’t work as well for younger grades, using the literature as a lens for looking at the real world could bring the environmental topics closer to children, in order for them to better understand the complications surrounding the issues. For example, Bigelow says that his class came to the realization that sole greed, while able to easily convey the ideas in The Lorax, isn’t accurate in analyzing how the stresses of competition and economy drive businesses to make decisions that are not ecological. The children learned, for example, that “massive deforestation in the Northwest is best explained as a result of the functioning of the capitalist system itself, not of individual greed” (Bigelow 2012).


The arguments surrounding environmental children’s literature being taught in the classroom aren’t as vehement as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, but the issues still remain and still have validity in shaping how schools move forward with environmental education. Whether the controversies reside in the polarizing of ideals between children and their parents in regards to economics or conduct at home, or they hinge on whether the literature supports science as opposed to appealing to students’ emotions, the arguments serve to insure that environmental education literature is being continually scrutinized and evaluated. The unfortunate side of this fact, however, is that it proves how far environmental literacy still has to come in the United States before the facts will be both known and defended by the citizens of more than just one or two generations.

Works Cited

Abate, Michelle Ann. Raising Your Kids Right : Children's Literature and American Political Conservatism. Piscataway, NJ, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 26 May 2016.

Adler, Jonathan. "Little Green Lies." Policy Review 61 (1992): 18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 May 2016.

Bigelow, Bill. “The Lorax: Dr. Seuss Revisited and Revised.” Zinn Education Project. (2012): n.p. Web. 26 May 2016.

Gaard, Greta. "Children's Environmental Literature: From Ecocriticism to Ecopedagogy." Neohelicon 36.2 (2009): 321-34. ProQuest. Web. 26 May 2016.

Meyer, Jason M. "Accuracy and Bias in Children's Environmental Literature: A Look at Lynne Cherry's Books." The Social Studies 93.6 (2002): 277-81. ProQuest. Web. 26 May 2016.

Mickenberg, Julia L., and Philip Nel. "Radical Children's Literature Now!" Children's Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 445-73. ProQuest. Web. 26 May 2016.

Monhardt, Rebecca, and Leigh Monhardt. “Children’s literature and environmental issues: Heart over mind?” Reading Horizons 40.3. (2000): 175-84. Web. 26 May 2016.

Sanera, Michael. “The Problem with Environmental Education Today:
Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?” Free Market Forum. (2008): 1-22. Web. 26 May 2016.

Teorey, Matthew. "The Lorax And Wallace Stegner: Inspiring Children's Environmental Activism." Children's Literature In Education 45.4 (2014): 324-339. Literary Reference Center. Web. 26 May 2016.

Wartenberg, Thomas E.. Sneetch is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries : Finding Wisdom in Children's Literature. Somerset, US: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 26 May 2016.


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