If you go into a bookshop today and look at the children’s or teen’s section would you be able to find a fiction book (excluding those written pre-1990) written about wildlife or that has wildlife as a large element of it? I suspect that you would find very few or none at all, at least none that show a genuine knowledge and love of wildlife (I do not mean childrens books written about ‘Jolly the elephant and his adventures with Rudolph the fox’ for example), yet if you include books written more than twenty or so years ago there are quite a few. Today the teen section is filled with fiction about romance or vampires or angels or post-apocalyptic futures or thriller action novels with a teenager as the hero (most of which have now been made into films), if you try the childrens section you will find plenty of books written by ‘famous’ people, lots of books about fairies or dragons, a lot of ‘diaries’ and the rest is patronizing drivel with very obvious morals.
But that is all the modern books, tucked between those are the classics such as ‘Tarka the Otter’, ‘Salar the Salmon’, ‘Wind in the Willows’, ‘Watership Down’, ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and perhaps some novels by ‘BB’ and Alan Garner. What stands out about a lot of these older books is how significant wildlife is in them and how knowledgeable the authors were about it, my favourite among these being the two ‘Little Grey Men’ books by ‘BB’. These two books are incredible in the detail and accuracy of the wildlife and landscape described in them, all the animals and plants are named correctly and are true to their real-life habits. There may be a group of kindly gnomes in these novels yet the author himself describes the wildlife as the real ‘fairies’ of this world, with voices and lives of their own, that can be as magical and interesting as any elf or goblin. Many of these children’s classics carry a good environmental message – long before climate change was known of or conservation had become big – the gnomes in BB’s books have to leave England because of the spread of humans and their pollution, almost the same thing is described in Garner’s ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ where the elves had fled to the north because of the smoke and pollution of the humans.
All these old classics based around wildlife are still remembered, though mostly by adults; nature in literature today is confined to non-fiction science books warning us of impending ecological doom (read only by adults), or is poetically and pretentiously written into philosophical musings in order to win book awards (also read only by adults). Nature in fiction for children does not seem to be being written anymore; how many eminent naturalists and conservationists of the 20th and current century were inspired and educated by the classic stories such as ‘Swallows and Amazons’ or ‘Brendon Chase’? Probably all of them, because children are impressionable and take in a lot of information during their first decade of life – if most of the books they read have wildlife in it is quite likely that they will be interested in wildlife as an adult (I know that that was the case with myself). But in the present day there are not any modern books for modern children to read (You could argue that not a lot of children read anymore but I know that’s not true) that could inspire them to take an interest in or at least care about wildlife – and there needs to be.