So much more than just a tree: plants in Children’s and Young Adult Literature
From the forests of the tales of the Brothers Grimm to Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, from the flowers of Cicely Mary Barker’s fairies to the treehouse in Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s popular 13-Storey Treehouse series, trees and other plants have been enduring features of stories for children and young adults. The brand-new book Plants in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, co-edited by Associate Professor Melanie Duckworth (Østfold University College) and Professor Lykke Guanio-Uluru (Western Norway University of Applied Sciences), maps out and presents an internationally inclusive view of plant representation in texts for children and young adults – and shows how this is far more than just a fairy tale.
Fantastic creatures and vegetal horror
The talking animals of children’s literature are well known, but what about plants? Plants, especially trees, have long carried significance in stories for children. The forests of fairy tales are the space in which adventures happen. Trees themselves are often endowed with magical properties in stories for children. For example, the original version of Cinderella contains an enchanted hazel tree instead of a fairy godmother. Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree bears magical fruit, is home to fantastic creatures, and acts as a ladder to magical lands, while the violent threat of J. K. Rowling’s whomping willow harks back to a heritage of vegetal horror that apprehends the strangeness of plants and includes J. R. R. Tolkien’s ravenous Old Man Willow. In environmental literature for children, like Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, children are exhorted to care for trees, and in Shel Silverstien’s The Giving Tree, a tree responds selflessly to a human’s demands until nothing but a stump remains.
We need each other
Should we view trees as enchanted custodians, or useful resources? Are they dangerous or in danger? And what about other plants – flowers, grass, vegetables, weeds? Do children have a special relationship with plants? The image of a child climbing a tree is iconic, and children themselves are frequently conceptualised with reference to metaphors of seeds, growth, and nurture. While there is a tendency to view plants as only the background to human endeavour, as food, resource and landscape, in reality, humans and other animals are completely dependent on plants, not only for the food we eat but for the air we breathe. Our bodies have co-evolved. We are alive in different ways, but we each need the earth, the air, the rain. We need each other.
Critical plant studies and children's books
Climate change, deforestation, mass plantations, pesticides and genetic engineering are affecting both plants and the complex ecosystems to which they – and we – belong. One way to begin addressing these issues is to start thinking of plants as more than just objects. Do plants think? We know that they sense – but do they feel? What characterizes plant knowledge? Should we think of them as people? Even if we do not – do plants have rights? Recent developments in the field of critical plant studies have begun asking these questions (see Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, 2011, and Michael Marder, Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 2013). Indigenous cultures have for millennia viewed plants as fellow beings, with lives interwoven with our own. It has been discovered that trees in forests communicate through mycorrhizal fungal networks in their roots, and ancient “mother trees” even nourish their offspring through this “wood wide web” (Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, 2015; Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, 2021). The “magical” properties of plants as presented in the pages of children’s literature may not be too far from the truth.
The new edited collection in Routledge’s Perspectives on the Non-human in Literature and Culture series addresses precisely these questions. Plants in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Melanie Duckworth and Lykke Guanio-Uluru, is situated at the intersection of critical plant studies and children’s literature studies, and explores topics such as plant agency, plant horror and plant kinship. Readers will encounter violent vegetables, flower fairies, queer willow trees, malevolent forests, talking rhubarb plants, dancing chamomiles and mothers who transform into oak trees. Chapters cover a wide range of genres including picture books, illustrated novels, young adult and middle grade fiction, fantasy, folklore, and poetry written by children, and address literature from Sweden, Finland, Australia, North and South America, Serbia, Italy, the UK, and Indigenous writing from the Philippines. Reading about, dreaming of, and listening to the stories of plants might just guide us into a deeper connection and commitment to the living world we share.