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Once Upon a Time…

By February 14, 2019 No Comments
Once Upon a Time…
Front cover of Once Upon a Time by Peter Tertzakian

If you’ve been part of a child’s bedtime routine, you know the joy of cuddling with them to read a favorite story. But did you ever think that this quiet ritual could shape their future beliefs about energy?

In my family, we accumulated lots of children’s books over the years: fact, fiction and fantastical. For my wife and me, there was no greater satisfaction than seeing our boys soak up a good book.

Now, I’m no child psychologist, but from my experience, it’s clear that a child forms ideas about what’s “normal” based on what’s read to them. Aristotle backs me up on this. He was the first to suggest that a young mind is like a blank slate that gets filled in with ideas and experiences over time.

I remember our sons’ unblinking eyes poring over every illustration, and their unfiltered ears clamping on to every word, trying to make sense of a story’s world. Gradually, the pages gelled into normative beliefs that would inform their lives (Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny excepted).

Long after they left the nest, I reflected again on the influence of children’s books on adult beliefs. Take The Jungle Book, for example. At face value, Rudyard Kipling’s classic shows kids that tigers, panthers and snakes are dangerous. Bears, on the other hand, are warm, fuzzy and friendly. After seeing Mowgli snuggling with Baloo, what child would think a bear is threatening? Other anthropomorphically inclined bear stories — like The Berenstain Bears, A Bear Called Paddington and, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh — instill a belief that bears are more likely to hug you than take a swipe at you.

Front cover of Once Upon a Time by Peter Tertzakian

Based on bear stories alone, you might think children’s books are responsible for nurturing grown-up idiots. You know the people I’m talking about: the ones who stop their cars on highways to feed half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches to grizzly bears. Maybe they do it because their parents read them The Jungle Book too many times. That’s just my theory, but think about it: do you know anyone who stops their car to offer Doritos to a snake? (I obviously like to keep my philosophy lighthearted.)

Based on bear stories alone, you might think children’s books are responsible for nurturing grown-up idiots.


I have a rule to not talk or think about my work in two sacred places: the bedroom and the dinner table. So energy wasn’t a subject I pushed on my family.

Now, years later, I’m trying to recall the books that seeded a certain energy mindset, subliminally or otherwise, into our children. I can think of a few.

“So you see, Alex,” I might have said after reading Thomas the Tank Engine to my eldest, “locomotives like Thomas don’t use steam and coal anymore. Isn’t that an interesting energy transition, son?”

Come to think of it, Alex had probably already learned about that transition from Virginia Lee Burton’s classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. She published the book in 1939, when soot-spewing, steam-powered locomotives, tractors and backhoes were still common. Real-life encounters with the clanging machines were undoubtedly softened by the image of Mary Anne, the personified steam shovel operated by her easygoing owner, Mike.

Reading Burton’s tale again reminds me of Alex’s angst when my hand turned from page 13 to 14 and I read the ominous words: “Then along came the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels.”

A look of sympathy overtook his face when he saw Mary Anne being spurned, much like the nerd on the playground once the cool kids show up. While the newfangled shovels get all the jobs, Mary Anne’s kind are sold for junk or abandoned altogether. “No one wanted Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne any more.”

Unbeknownst to Alex, he was learning an economics lesson on how technological obsolescence displaces labor and capital. His teacher? An endearing steam shovel. Never discount the sophistication of children’s books in delivering a message.

Environment is the theme in two 1971 classics: Theodor Seuss Geisel’s The Lorax and Bill Peet’s The Caboose Who Got Loose. I certainly remember the ’70s — a time of peak pollution and smog in Western cities. The degradation of our environment was captured in headlines bemoaning things like acid rain, ozone depletion and mercury ingestion. Incidents like those at Minamata Bay, Love Canal and Three Mile Island, along with predictions of the death of freshwater life in the Great Lakes, heightened awareness.

Related Vignettes

Against this dystopian backdrop, the emergence of social conscience in children’s materials is hardly surprising. Influencing children was necessary for creating a generation of leaders who would address these disturbing problems.

Dr. Seuss’s message in The Lorax isn’t simply that reckless energy use is the root cause of environmental degradation. At a higher level, he evangelizes the connection between the corporate elite’s greed and our planet’s desecration.

Seuss’s pointed narrative hasn’t lost its edge over the years: energy production, especially the fossil fuel type, is invariably tangled up in missives about money-lust and destruction of the environment. But his original message directed responsibility to his impressionable audience. “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” the Once-ler — the one whose greed has wreaked havoc on the environment — tells a young boy.

Personally, I’m partial to Bill Peet’s story about sweet Katy Caboose. Her lot in life is bringing up the rear, “with an endless black cloud of smoke rolling past.” To heighten the effect, Peet illustrates Katy being pulled by a coal-fired steam engine, although, by 1971, most locomotives were diesel-powered. Katy is getting gassed nonstop, even when docked in the freight yard, where soot from the plant looming in the background joins smoke pumping from the trains.

Katy’s fortune changes when her coupling breaks loose on a steep mountain bend. My kids instinctively took a deep breath when they saw Katy escape her environmentally insensitive master. As a runaway, she jumps the tracks, flies through the air and lands comfortably wedged between two evergreen trees. Birds and squirrels greet Katy, and she finds contentment in the serenity of the clean mountain air.

On the final page, Peet soothes his young audience with these words: “And how Katy did love it up there in the trees.” As the book is closed for the night, both parent and child can go to sleep assured the world has a chance of becoming a better place.

Against this dystopian backdrop, the emergence of social conscience in children’s materials is hardly surprising.

Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Lorax, The Caboose Who Got Loose

Energy transitions, corporate greed, environmental desecration — these classics gently introduce children to some very adult subjects, laying the foundation for their future attitudes toward energy.


After I’d read the last bedtime story to Andy, my youngest, I didn’t buy another children’s book for many years. Until one day, as a collector of antiquarian books, I was alerted to a 1924 collected edition of three Hilaire Belloc classics: The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts Together with More Beasts for Worse Children and Cautionary Tales.

These cheeky pieces of satire are as much for adults as they are for children, although Belloc makes it clear who his target is. In the introduction to Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, originally published in 1896, he states, “The Moral of this priceless work / (If rightly understood) / Will make you — from a little Turk — / Unnaturally good.”

He sets out to do this by prompting children to think about irresponsible human interaction with nature. On the surface, he, along with illustrator Lord Basil Temple Blackwood, offers a whimsical portrayal of subservient animals in an arrogant, colonial, human-dominated world. But it’s hardly Winnie-the-Pooh. Aristocrats hunt hippopotami with “bullets made of platinum” and slay a giraffe “with stones and sticks and guns and slings.”

What caught my attention, and why I bought this rare book, are the five pages titled “The Whale,” characterizing the grim standing of the marine mammal in our 19th-century energy supply.

The Whale that wanders round the Pole
Is not a table fish.
You cannot bake or boil him whole
Nor serve him in a dish;
But you may cut his blubber up
And melt it down for oil,
And so replace the colza bean
(A product of the soil).
These facts should all be noted down
And ruminated on,
By every boy in Oxford town
Who wants to be a Don.

I’ve written a lot about the whaling industry, which was big business — and bad news for whales — until the latter half of the 19th century. By the end of the 1800s, as many as 300,000 sperm whales, the principal prey at the time, had lost their lives so people could light their homes.

Thankfully, whales were spared when petroleum was discovered in commercial quantity in the 1860s and “rock oil” quickly replaced whale oil in lanterns. Until that moment, cutting up a sperm whale yielded a prized fuel that lit big cities like London and New York.

Belloc informs the wide-eyed child that whale oil can commercially displace the oil from a colza bean (or canola), a millennia-old sustainable biofuel also used for lighting. At face value, the suggestion is clear: harvesting whales for oil is a better business proposition than harvesting bean crops.

But Belloc is being cynical. His real message is that destroying this great mammal is not only unsustainable but reprehensible, given the availability of sustainable fuel alternatives like vegetable oils.

It’s hardly Winnie-the-Pooh.

The perverse message of this illustration accompanying “The Whale” is that these majestic beasts had only one purpose: to serve humans’ selfish need for comfort.

There it is again: that subliminal lesson on energy economics and how our fuel choices, old or new, can have negative consequences. Fortunately for Mary Anne, those consequences are short-lived — her steam power is put to another use and she lives happily in her new life. Belloc’s whale, however, is a victim of our insatiable appetite for comfort and convenience.

I was struck by the mentoring at the end of “The Whale.” Children who aspire to positions of influence should “ruminate.” Good advice from Belloc, I thought: our future leaders should be encouraged early on to develop critical thinking about energy, environment and economy — and to consider the consequences of their choices.

Still, it takes time to effect change. After Belloc published The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, several generations of children’s books and many graduating classes of young leaders went by before the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. Even then, the National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that almost 3 million whales were killed between 1900 and 1999. It’s enough to make anybody, never mind a young child, cry.

By the 1900s, technology had given humans a distinct advantage over whales: this steamer fired a harpoon equipped with hooks and an explosive grenade that incapacitated the whale.


As I contemplate the children’s books spread across my desk, an important truth about the future of our energy-environment circumstances comes to me: societal attitudes must transition before we can expect physical transition.

I run a hand over the cover of my well-worn edition of Belloc’s classics, take in its old-book smell and think about the parents who bought it almost a century ago. Snuggled in a comfy bed and reading it to their children, they were influencing the youngsters’ world views, whether they intended to or not.

I wonder what I’ll be reading to my grandchildren. When that day comes, I’ll stick to my rule about leaving business (and probably bears now too) out of the bedroom, but I’ll be much more aware of the big role those seemingly small moments can play in influencing their beliefs. I hope those values will prompt their generation to make smart, sustainable choices … and that they’ll live a happily-ever-after energy future.