Call for papers: Edited Collection on Plants in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Editors: Melanie Duckworth and Annika Herb
In conversation with the emerging field of critical plant studies, this edited collection aims to explore cultural and historical aspects of the representations of plants in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand children’s and YA literature, encompassing colonial, postcolonial and Indigenous perspectives. Australia is home to over 20,000 species of native plants – from pungent Eucalypts to twisting mangroves, from tiny orchids to spiky, silvery spinifex. Indigenous Australians have lived with, relied upon, and cultivated these plants for many thousands of years, participating in a reciprocal kinship with plants that encompasses eating, weaving, healing, burning, singing, and storytelling. The Māori embrace their own distinct kinship with plants in Aotearoa New Zealand, where whakairo rakau, wood carving, embodies connections between ancestral spirits, trees, and the present. The iconic silver fern is one of thousands of unique species of native plants that evolved in isolation over millions of years, from delicate manuka to dense, tangled beech forests, and the vibrant green of moss and tree ferns.
When European explorers and colonists first invaded Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, unfamiliar species of plants captured their imagination, as well as that of the English public. While settlers cleared the bush to make way for towns and agriculture, devastating natural ecosystems, non-native plants were introduced for both pragmatic and aesthetic purposes, as colonists attempted to recreate a pastoral landscape and tame a landscape deemed threatening. Plants were thus caught up in the colonial project from the very beginning.
Plants, vulnerable to bushfires, climate change, and introduced species, continue to occupy fraught but vital places in the ecologies and cultures of both countries. There are significant differences in the flora and the colonial histories of the two nations, and in their ongoing relationships to this past. In these contexts, books for children and young adults published in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand reflect and cultivate a variety of approaches to plants, which are in turn depicted as threatening, exotic, beautiful, imperilled, and emblematic of a nation.
In the first published children’s book in Australia, Charlotte Barton’s A Mother’s Offering to her Children (1841), a mother regales her children with encyclopaedic facts about Australian flora and fauna. May Gibbs’ Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) imagines Australian flowers and Eucalyptus leaves as populated by miniature, white, chubby toddlers, but her evil “banksia men” animate another Australian plant into troubling caricatures of Black men. Inspired by Gibbs, Avis Acres created an Aotearoa New Zealand version based on the Pōhutukawa tree in The Adventures of Hutu and Kawa (1955). The picturebook Taketakerau: The Millennium Tree, by Marnie Anstis (2013), historicises a 2000-year-old puriri tree in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand history and world events. In Australian Young Adult literature, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Tribe (2012-2015) series imagines a postapocalyptic future with the healing power and knowledge of the Firstwood at the core of the series. Jared Thomas’s Calypso Summer (2014) examines the colonial commercialisation of cultural knowledge as a young Nukunu man is pressured by his health store boss to share native plants for natural remedies.
While plants tend to be backgrounded as sessile, expendable, and of less narrative interest than animals and humans, the field of critical plant studies approaches them as living beings worthy of attention. Scientific and popular scientific texts have investigated plant sentience and communication (Mancuso and Viola 2015, Wohlleben 2015, Pollan 2001). Philosophical texts have addressed plant thinking, personhood, and human relationships with plants (Marder 2013, 2014, Nealon 2015, Hall 2011). A rapidly growing number of books and edited collections explore representations of plants in literature (Gagliano, Vieira and Ryan 2015; Laist 2015; Ryan 2017; Meeker and Szabari 2019; Duckworth and Guanio-Uluru, forthcoming). We envisage this book as contributing to these discussions, as well as specifically engaging with the wide-ranging significance of plants in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand children’s and YA literature.
We hope to include chapters examining a broad spectrum of historical and contemporary texts, and to centre Indigenous and Māori perspectives. While the vegetation, cultures and histories of these two former British colonies are distinct, we believe a collection that brings the ecologies and young people’s literatures from these nations into dialogue will be very interesting, facilitating further exploration in the field.
Individual contributions do not need to reference both countries – we aim to engage with the nuanced and unique vegetal histories and literatures of each nation.
Possible contributions in Australian or Aotearoa New Zealand contexts could include:
- Representations of plants in Māori or Indigenous Australian children’s or YA literature
- Representations of particular species of plants
- Plants in colonial or “classic” Australian or Aotearoa New Zealand children’s literature
- Changing conceptions of “the bush”
- Plants in children’s and YA climate fiction, dystopia, science fiction and fantasy
- Flower fairies and plant people
- Plants and emotion
- Plants as sites of memory or holders of knowledge
- Differing representations of native vs introduced plants
- Picturebooks, nonfiction books, graphic novels or poetry for children about plants
- Plants and national or cultural identity
- Plants and gender studies or queer studies
- Plants and posthumanism
Submission of abstracts (300 words, plus a brief biographical statement): 30 May
Authors notified of preliminary acceptance: 30 June
Final Chapters (5000-6000 words): 15 January
The book is intended for publication with a major academic publisher. Palgrave’s Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series has indicated interest in the proposal.
featured photo: Nicholas Rean
Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand (2014)