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‘Beasts at Bedtime’ Explores Environmental Themes in Children’s Lit

‘Beasts at Bedtime’ Explores Environmental Themes in Children’s Lit

Liam Heneghan’s Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature conjures a world of natural magic and wonder. Animals are more than animals, trees are more than trees, the moon and the stars draw close, and they are all mysteriously intertwined.

This marvelous book is an introduction to environmental themes in children’s literature as well as a model of literary criticism accessible to a broad audience—because it must be. Such work must be accessible, because environmental issues are so critical and the need for increased environmental literacy so urgent. The genius of the work, however, is Heneghan’s ability to speak from a wide variety of experiences and perspectives with one exceptionally lively, congenial, and coherent voice. On the surface we encounter a scientist, teacher, and father’; but in the depths we see flashes of a child, animal, and sprite.

Beasts at Bedtime is encyclopedic in the best sense of the word.  It is constructed so that the reader can dip in and out of it will. You can read it in a linear fashion, jump ahead, or revisit chapters.  If you revisit chapters—as I did—you’ll undoubtedly appreciate them anew because there is much more to each than appears at first glance. This aspect also makes the book well-suited for use as a textbook in various disciplines, including environmental studies, English, education, and development psychology. Indeed, I feel quite comfortable asserting that the book should be a companion text to every children’s literature course. It is also accessible for high-school students and teachers.

Some of Heneghan’s topics are predictable in the sense that we would expect any book about the environmental aspects of literature to include them. Others are surprising, and some are so critically important they warrant a book-length analysis of their own. The conventional topics are the pastoral, wilderness, and caring for the environment. Among the counterintuitive chapters are those about islands, cannibalism, and suburban settings.

I was astonished by the nursery rhyme chapter and the Babar chapter. Heneghan’s analysis of nursery rhymes almost convinced me that they have a hermetic power and that storytelling could be a form of dark magic. Because I was read to from a giant book of nursery rhymes as a child, I knew “the canon” very well and used to have most of it memorized. These mini stories must have had a profound effect on my psyche. And how disturbing to remember that many of them were coded commentaries on political scandals and religious persecution among other social ills.

Heneghan’s critical reading of Babar was fascinating for various reasons.  Though the series about an urbane elephant who “dresses” for dinner has been criticized as reinforcing colonial values and practices, Heneghan’s reading is subtler and more astute. He suggests the French author, Jean de Brunhoff, might have had and expressed a sense of irony in his representation of colonialism. This idea utterly transformed my perception of the books. Regardless of the author’s intentions, single-minded critical readings may be an insult to children’s literature and authors. If we merely take children’s stories at face value, we deny them the respect we afford literature for adults.  Heneghan, conversely, remains full of awe and respect—indeed, reverence—for the works he critiques.

Other literary critical gems include chapters on Where the Wild Things Are, Robinson Crusoe, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Lorax. I suppose these chapters stood out for me because of my personal experiences and professional preoccupations. However, I say this to suggest that various other chapters may resonate, in particular, with various other readers. My interests did not necessarily follow my favorite books, for example; there’s more to the phenomenology of reading this text than fond memories. I’d be curious to go back and reflect on why certain chapters stood out for me, and others less.  This suggests a teaching strategy as well as an opportunity for reflecting on early wilderness and reading experiences for anyone interested in the nature/culture nexus.

Like all good storytellers, Heneghan enjoys a good digression. His personal anecdotes and critical insights wind their way like a river through a lush landscape, occasional overflowing its banks. At times the reader may feel they have been led astray; it’s no coincidence that Heneghan relates a number of personal anecdotes about getting lost in nature and even in an urban environment (while getting figuratively lost in wonder).  However, the author and the man don’t get dangerously off track. Ultimately, I appreciated the digressive passages as part of the charming and erudite aesthetic whole.

As an environmental activist, I was particularly impressed by Heneghan’s main point about the lack of environmental literacy among adults. In response, the author gives good advice and models of how to engage with children’s literature as a form of education as well as entertainment. He also provides a lot of encouragement for parents to continue to educate themselves. Although he doesn’t discuss affect very much, the work is so deeply infused with the author’s own deep, emotional attachments to family, place, and books, it will be clear to sensitive and reflective readers that our attention follows our hearts. There is no better way to cultivate attachment to the natural world than through telling stories.

When we read stories to our children we also train them to become storytellers.  And training them to become storytellers is a way of helping them to influence their culture, their socio-political sphere, and their environment. As Heneghan asserts in his critique of The Lorax, angry finger-pointing is generally not effective. At the very least, environmental activists need to better understand the power of storytelling.  I dare say the most impactful section of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was the introductory story of a town bereft of bird song. The science was of course very, very important, as was the social critique, but the fields and rules of political engagement continually change. We may forget the details of any given ecological controversy, but everyone remembers a moving story.

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If the living canon of children’s stories is a kind of sacred text, and I believe that it is, Beasts at Bedtime is similar to a biblical commentary. And this makes me think, mischievously, of bibliomancy. Keep this book close by and dip into it whenever you need a fresh perspective on your relationship to the environment, a little of magic in your life, or inspiration to care about creation however you imagine it. Wherever you are at this moment, and wherever you are heading, this book is an excellent companion, trusted guide, and I dare say moral compass.


Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan
The University of Chicago Press
Published May 15, 2018

Liam Heneghan is professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. He is a Dubliner, an occasional poet, a tin whistle player, and a father of two grown children to whom he read every night of their early years.


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  • I just finished reading this book and loved it! This is a groundbreaking and forward looking book on the subject of environmental teachings in classic children literature. I recommend it highly for anyone who was once a kid…, or a current parent or teacher looking for ways to interpret and connect with the natural world through books and bedtime stories, or simply wanting to revisit your own bedtime stories or nursery rhymes and understand their subtle complexities in new ways.

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