Into the Wilderness: An Exploration of Landscape in Children’s Literature
As a child I often imagined I was on adventures in the wilderness without my parents in tow. My grandparents were avid David Attenborough fans and I used to watch wildlife documentaries with them before acting the scenes out: pretending I was climbing to the top of a rainforest; rescuing a pelican from a cliff or swimming with pink dolphins in an alpine lake. I wanted to inhabit an outside world: interacting with nature and experiencing my environment.
All the Book Countries
The literature I surrounded myself with reflected this desire and books such as Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Kipling’s Jungle Book, swept me away to faraway lands or on adventures in new settings. My other favourites included Louis Sachar’s Holes and The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. These stories allowed me to experience being in the wilderness from the safety of my home. These are also the things I now want to put in my own stories: the places I want to spend time in when I write and the type of landscape I want to create for my characters to interact with.
Sita Brahmachari describes this process as feeling as if she’s ‘breathed the air of all the book countries [she’s] travelled to and the memory of these stories still play about [her] mind.’
Anthony McGowan agrees that setting allows the audience to live in another world whilst they read:
Adventures can happen on a Leeds council estate or a bit of scrubby woodland on the outskirts of Slough quite as readily as in the Himalayas, and yet stories set amid faraway mountains and deserts, jungles and coral reefs can have a huge visceral and imaginative impact. They provide dangers that are both intensely thrilling and yet safely remote: the animals that stalk us in the forest or surge towards us under the waves may drive us to hide beneath the duvet, but they can’t truly bite; the rope bridge may fray, and finally snap, but loving arms will catch you when you fall.
I grew up in the Himalayas of India and, as a child, the majority of my imaginary adventures took place there. The Himalayas very organically became the setting for my first book, Running on the Roof of the World. The story begins in Tibet and is grounded in a realistic setting and situation: the occupation and suppression of Tibet by the Chinese government. I wanted to tackle themes that are current and engage with the big things that are going on in the world today within my novel.
Similarly, in a talk as part of Michael Morpurgo book month, Morpurgo said about his own novels that he takes things that are true and real and when it comes to adventures and the world, he uses them.
Elizabeth Laird comments about books set within the real world:
They teleport us to live for a while in distant places we only hear about on the news. It’s a risky business, and history might frown on some of these interpretations, but the dramatic stories they tell are every bit as poignant, exciting and memorable as the most action-soaked fantasies. In a world where ignorance of Out There is a real threat to world peace, they do an important job, too.
During the process of writing, I usually get my ideas from a sense of place: I know the setting and world I want to write about often before I know the characters which inhabit that space. Character exercises, such as asking questions like ‘does your character have a secret?’ have helped me to unlock the stories and led the process of knowing what my book is really about.
At a lecture once, I asked David Almond to discuss his settings and asked whether the worlds his characters lived in were real or imagined? He replied that if you start with a real world then you can do anything with it. He talked about the power and precision of naming things: by attaching language to the world it becomes real experience and when you give a name to something it comes into existence. Almond said that each time you put a word in your story; ‘it’s the chance to awaken something in the reader and give them a rush of experience.’
‘Setting,’ he said, ‘is in a sense everything.’
Within Skellig, David Almond suggested that in order for the protagonist, Michael, to discover something weird, it had to exist within the real world. Therefore, Almond describes the physicality of the garage where Skellig is: there were ‘dead bluebottles everywhere’ and Michael ‘tiptoed further in and felt spider webs breaking on [his] brow.’ This is an example of the power of nouns and verbs and using key, specific details that stand out. Also, Michael is physically interacting with his surroundings: he doesn’t just see the spider webs but feels them which is stronger because it allows the reader to experience Michael’s senses along with him.
Julia Green adds that ‘physically anchoring a story in an actual place gives it a reality – makes it believable and convincing – even if you do fictionalise aspects of it, or call it something else ( poetic liberties).’
I think that landscape should be accurately represented with details being described with veracity if the setting in a novel is supposed to be reflective of a real place. Therefore, I write about places I have been and experienced personally or can research at depth. A wonderful way to evoke setting is to use the senses – make your reader hear, smell, touch and taste the place – as well as see it.
Anthony McGowan goes further to say that ‘there is also the chance for a genuine knowledge and understanding of the world to be imbibed, as long, that is, as the ethnology and zoology don’t get in the way of a story that grips like the jaws of a jaguar.’ I agree that it is vital to be aware that long paragraphs of description will slow the pace of a story and it is often more effective to intertwine description with action or dialogue. For example: ‘”Why?” I asked, scraping my boot across the wet sand,’ conveys more than ‘I was at the beach.’
Places and Meaning
Landscape is not just the place where a story happens: Peter Hunt states that in children’s literature ‘places mean.’ Setting does provide a backdrop for the action to happen but it is also ‘the very stuff with which the story will be woven.’
In Running on the Roof of the World, the journey over the harsh mountains is symbolic of the conflict within the story: the protagonist’s inner anger and sorrow and the hard climb to find her family. In Julia Green’s writing she uses place ‘not just as the physical setting where events unfold, but as a reflection of [her] characters’ inner landscape.’
Similarly, Charlotte’s Web by E.B White has much deeper themes than first appears: he suggests how life goes on despite change and death through a passage with the crickets singing ‘summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song.’ Even on the ‘days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumour of sadness and change. Everyone hears the crickets and E.B White goes on to describe what it means to each character. For example: ‘Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn’t much time left,’ whereas the goslings hear it and realise they ‘will never be little goslings again.’
The transition within the passage from the setting to the effect it has on its inhabitants links the characters directly to the crickets and the death and renewal of nature. The repetition of ‘hearing’ the crickets, binds life together and gives the prose a rhythm which is emphasised by the lyrical language.
This passage is also an example of how setting comes into existence as it is being experienced: ‘human experience of territory – be it inhabited, viewed, remembered or imagined – focalises and changes the nature of the site.’
Using Characters to Show Setting
In writing, I try to get as close to the viewpoint of my character as I can; either through first person or third person limited. This allows me to see the world through their eyes. Depending on a character’s emotional state and motivations, the details they notice in their surroundings will change; objects become more or less significant, sentiment towards their landscape varies and memories can be evoked from a particular place. For example, I made this prevalent in the difference in the descriptions of a certain ridge: before the incident it is made of ‘smooth, shiny rock that absorbs the sun’s heat’ but afterwards it is ‘barren’.
In Michael Morpugo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, the protagonist, Michael, falls over the side of his boat and is washed up on an island. He is stranded and is forced to try and survive. Being in the wilderness becomes a source of conflict, throwing obstacles in his way and his motivations are pressed upon him by his surroundings: his wants and desires become those of survival and escape: ‘if only I could get a fire lit… sooner or later, a ship had to come by. Someone would spot the smoke.’
Similarly, in Running on the Roof of the World, the physical and emotional challenges of high altitude, the weather and harsh conditions form part of the plot as the protagonist struggles to overcome these obstacles.
Michael Morpurgo is successful in reminding us of place without stating the obvious: he shows the reader rather than tells them. For example, out at sea, instead of telling us how damp it is he writes ‘we had crackers, all of them a bit soggy so none of them cracked,’ He also creates the impression of a scorching sun through Michael’s sunburn: ‘I had learnt rather late that I should keep all my clothes on all the time, and I made myself a hat to keep the sun off my face and neck.’
I include similar touches within my own writing: the ‘yak’s wool jumper’ and ‘goat meat’ remind the reader of the nomadic world they’re in.
Morpurgo uses the landscape to build conflict in scenes:
I thought then of the sharks cruising the black water beneath me – scenting me, already searching me out, homing in on me – and I knew there could be no hope. I would be eaten alive. Either that or I would drown slowly. Nothing could save me.
Here, he uses the rule of three within a long sentence, which gradually builds the tension and threat until it crescendos with the three short sentences.
On the island there is another person: Kensuke, who draws a line in the sand which marks them as separate and forbids Michael to cross on to his side. Michael calls him his ‘his captor’ but respects the border because Kensuke is feeding him. These emotions climax in an act of defiance: ‘I stopped at the boundary line in the sand and then, very deliberately, I stepped over it… “Are you watching old man?” I shouted. “Look! I’ve crossed over. I’ve crossed over your silly line.”’
This scene of high emotion marks a turning point in the story as Michael is stung by the jelly fish and Kensuke carries him across to his side. From then on they build a resolution and understanding of each other. Here, Michael’s character arc and development is reflected in the setting.
In my own writing I consider how crossing a physical boundary represents a turning point for inner development. There are many physical boundaries being crossed such as the one between Tibet and India.
Familiar and Strange Environments
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is also a story about survival in a new landscape. Paulsen uses a comparison with the city to highlight how foreign this world is to Brian:
It was all a green and blue blur and he was used to the grey and black of the city, the sounds of the cit… Here, at first, it was silent, but when he started to listen, really listen, he heard thousands of things. Hisses and blurps, small sounds, birds singing, hum of insects, splashes from the fish jumping – there was great noise here, but a noise he did not know.
The use of the list has the effect of the reader almost hearing the noises as Brian does and creates a feeling that the list is endless. Within the syntax, the most important part of the sentence, that it is a noise he doesn’t know, is at the end, drawing attention to it. Paulsen effectively uses these senses to draw the reader into this new wilderness and suggest that Brian will have to find a new way of life, a new identity even, if he is to stay there.
This forced search for a new identity is furthered by the repetition of ‘First Days,’ ‘First Arrow Day,’ and ‘First Rabbit Day’ later in the novel. Paulsen uses Brian’s interaction with the landscape to grow and develop him as a character. At the end Brian has grown to embrace and enjoy this return to nature: ‘with a ready flame he didn’t have to know how to make a spark nest or how to feed the new flames to make them grow… he wasn’t sure he liked the change.’
In both Kensuke’s Kingdom and Hatchet, the characters are mostly isolated which provides room for solitary growth through internal narrative and their reactions to the world they’re in. In Running on the Roof of the World I wanted to hold on to this close interaction, and feeling of philosophical reflection with the world, but also incorporate more characters and dialogue.
In contrast to Hatchet, in Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech takes the protagonist away from her home, her own wilderness and all the things she’s connected to in nature, and moves her to the city:
Just over a year ago, my father plucked me up like a weed and took me and all our belongings (no, that is not true – he did not bring the chestnut tree or the willow or the hayloft or the swimming hole or any of those things which belong to me) and we drove three hundred miles straight north and stopped in front of a house in Euclid, Ohio.
‘Where are the trees?’ I said.
This is successful as a novel opening as it hooks the reader in and we want to know why they had to leave. The chatty, colloquial voice draws the reader in and appeals to the young teen audience the book is aimed at. The use of the list highlights the enormousness of the protagonist’s problem and feelings about the situation.
Trees are a symbol throughout the story: She ‘prayed to the trees… There was nearly always a tree nearby.’ ‘Tree’ is also Sal’s middle name, which her mother chose, and is her connection to her mother and her Native American ancestry. This in turn helps Sal to deal with the loss of her mother when an idea from earlier in the story of ‘a tall aspen with a bird singing a beautiful song in it,’ is repeated: ‘she isn’t actually gone at all. She’s singing in the trees.’
The way setting is intertwined with the loss of a mother here is poignant and moving and again, points to themes of life, death and renewal.
In How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff brings us into a world which is recognisable as rural English countryside yet throughout the novel she does not define the landscape historically or geographically beyond this. A war begins and the soldiers are described only as ‘The Enemy.’ Even at the end Daisy refers to the war as ‘The Occupation.’ This is successful because the story is told from Daisy’s first person narrative and it fits her personality that it doesn’t matter to her where they came from, all she is worried about is her new found family and recapturing that sense of belonging with them: ‘I started trying to figure out a way for Piper and me to… be out in the world possibly running into some of our long lost relatives.’
It is still very much a story grounded in place: when Daisy and Piper are forced to avoid the roads because they’re unsafe, they make new paths through the wilderness. In turn the landscape leaves its mark on them as they are covered in dirt, scratches and blisters. This physical journey is also their psychological journey: ‘from peace to war and innocence to experience.’
Children and the World
I recently asked a group of 8-12 year olds where they want the books they read to be set. The response was vast, ranging from out in space; in the jungle; on a submarine and one answer was even ‘inside a dragon’s body.’ My conclusion from this is that there is no unifying place that every child wants to spend time; instead, for inspiration and ideas I have delved into my own childhood, the things I wanted to read about aged 8-12 and the actual physical books that were formative in making me who I am today.
David Almond said that children are the ones who are going to change the world and we’re the ones to help them do it. For me, this means writing stories with outdoor realism: a connection and understanding of the natural world and places of wilderness, which is in turn, representative of the characters’ journeys that inhabit these places.
- Almond, David Skellig. London: Hodder Children’s Books, 1998.
- Almond, David Writing for Young People. Bath Spa University, 20th November 2013.
- Butterworth, Jessica. Conversation with Seamus Quinn. 13th November 2013.
-  Brahmachari, Sita ‘Top 10 books that take you travelling’. The Guardian, 26th April 2012. [online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2012/apr/26/sita-brahmachari-top-10.
- Carrol, Jane Suzanne Landscape in Children’s Literature. Oxon: Routledge. 2011.
- Creech, Sharon Walk Two Moons, London: Macmillan Children’s Books. 1994.
- Green, Julia Crossing Boundaries: landscapes of childhood and adolescence, notes for conference talk at AWP Conference. Boston USA, 2013.
- Laird, Elizabeth ‘Top 10 tough stuff’. The Guardian, 17th May 2012. [Online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2012/may/17/elizabeth-laird-top-10-tough-stuff.
-  McGowan, Anthony ‘Top 10 global adventures’. The Guardian, 05th July 2012. [online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2012/jul/05/anthony-mcgowan-top-10-global-adventures
- Morpurgo, Michael Kensuke’s Kingdom. London: Egmont, 1999.
-  Morpurgo, Michael Voyages, 2013. [Online] Available from: http://michaelmorpurgo.com/books/kensukes-kingdom.
- Rosoff, Meg How I Live Now, London: Penguin Books. 2004.
- White, E.B Charlotte’s Web. London: Puffin Books. 2003.
Jess studied Creative Writing at Bath Spa University before completing an MA in Writing for Young People there. Jess grew up between Bath, where her mum’s family were based, and the foothills of the Himalayas in India, where her dad’s family lived. As soon as she was old enough, and armed with her notebook, Jess went in search of her own adventures and stories. She has lived in India, Australia, and the US. Her books are set in the wild places that exist in our world. Jess’s debut for 10+ RUNNING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD will be published on June 1st in 2017 by Orion Children’s Books.