Exploring Ecofeminist Perspectives in the Picturebook Wave: Representations of Relationships between Nature and Child

11 minutes to read
Je An

If you are an educator, especially if you work in a primary school, it is essential to grasp the role of stories in enabling children to perceive their surroundings, understand others' lives, and contemplate their own way of living (Wason-Ellam, 2010). If we relate this idea to nature, it becomes clear that environmental children’s books can inspire children to form a perspective on the nature surrounding them and build a relationship with it (Williams et al., 2012). In other words, representations of the relationships between nature and children, in particular in environmental picturebooks, are essential since they affect both their views of nature and their perceptions of themselves as interwoven into nature.    

The Korean picturebook Wave, illustrated by Suzy Lee, received the Christian Hans Andersen award in 2022 for its portrayal of a girl and a wave, and the relationship between the two. In what follows, I will use critical content analysis as an approach and ecofeminism as a theory to analyze and discuss the representations of the relationships between a wave and a girl present in the picturebook Wave.  

What is Critical Content Analysis?

Content analysis as a methodology focuses on the usage of patterns in text and images and analyzes the implied meaning of them within the patterns (Neuendorf, 2017). It aims to reveal “the ways language and images are used to shape representations of others in relation to the intended audience” (Short, 2019: 6). Initially, a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches was employed to examine children's books, primarily focusing on quantitative methods to tally the presence and depictions of specific cultural groups or phenomena. However, current trends lean more towards a qualitative approach wherein researchers adopt a theoretical position and scrutinize the text within its social, cultural, and political contexts (Short, 2019). In this paradigm, content analysis intertwines with reader-response theory, positing that the meaning of the text transcends the words on the page and emerges in the dynamic interaction between the reader and the text. In essence, it resides in the reading event and extends into broader contexts, hence, taking a critical stance, content analysis becomes not merely an analytical tool but a political position, particularly when scrutinizing potential inequities or resistance to oppression (Short, 2019). Given the fact that the picturebook Wave is wordless, this perspective places a primary emphasis on the visual content, recognizing its significance in conveying nuanced meanings and facilitating an exploration of socio-political dimensions.

How can ecofeminism be used in a content analysis?

Moving on to the theory, ecofeminism - which can be used as a political stance in a content analysis - is a term that refers to exploring “the issues of oppression and its interconnection to the domination of marginalized groups as well as nature” (Warren, 2000, quoted in Ryman, 2021: 882). It entails a perspective that acknowledges a meaningful moral connection between women and nature, as both are linked through the identification with femininity. This association is characterized by traits like fecundity and vulnerability. It starts with “a recognition that the position and treatment of women, animals, and nature are not separable” and that oppression of nature and other forms of social injustice are all connected (Gaard, 2009: 322). Both are deemed significant, yet their strengths face control or violation through patriarchal influences. Common metaphors, practices, and institutions further promote and justify their mistreatment. However, ecofeminism also asserts the “awareness of the beauty or moral of the natural world, and the human tendency toward compassion and caring” (Cuomo, 2006: 6). In fact, it does not only work to “understand and criticize oppressive divisions” but also open up the possibilities “within, beneath, and beyond domination” (Cuomo, 2002: 7).

Since there are many different aspects to the theory, the most productive way to apply the theory in the analysis of this article is to identify a specific set of theoretical tenets. In this case, five Master Model tenets of ecofeminism (Plumwood, 1994) will be drawn. First, “backgrounding” is used to see how humans deny the importance of nature’s contribution and their dependency on it. In this tenet, humans see nature as background to humanity’s foreground. Second, “radical exclusion’, also known as hyper-separation, happens when humans are seen as sacred and set apart from nature due to its perceived inferiority. Third,  ïncorporation” shows how nature is defined by how it meets the needs of humanity. Fourth, ïnstrumentalization” can be observed when nature is seen as an object to be used without any rights of its own. And lastly, “homogenization” or stereotyping is grouping nature as all the same. These Master Model tenets will be read through attributes of symbols in the pictures, meanings of the texts, and the way the pictures are positioned and framed within the pages considering that visual narratives use images. The content will also be discussed by answering the following three questions developed by Gaard: (1) “how does the narrative/text provide an antidote to the first step in the logic of domination?”, (2) “how does the narrative define the ecojustice problem?”, and (3) “what kind of agency does the text recognize in nature?” (Gaard, 2009, p. 327-328, 330).

What is the picturebook Wave known for?

Wave is a wordless picturebook illustrated by Korean female writer and illustrator Suzy Lee. Since its publication in 2009, it has been acknowledged by numerous world-renowned awards for its illustrations and the meaning behind them. Before diving into the first question, we should begin by focusing on the fact that the main character, who is exploring nature playfully, is a girl. This is significant considering that the “past and present children’s and young adult literature has offered girls and boys few models of girls behaving confidently and competently outdoors” (Gurholt, 2018: 248) and that there has been unity between nature and masculinity showing masculine characters, usually boys, adventuring into the wild (243). The girl at the beach is first cautious around the waves but gradually becomes bolder, enjoying the experience with her senses and freely expressing her feelings without any worries. This part can be characterized as future girls who are “ambitious, independent girls who regard sports and outdoor activities as important arenas of self-definition” (Gurholt, 2018: 249). This depiction of new femininity counteracts the oppression of girls and women that is embedded in the traditional Korean culture, which is based on the Confucian philosophy. From a young age, children are taught to differentiate the roles of boys and girls. This raffects their perspectives on appearances and how to behave. While boys would participate in the outer world physically, girls are to engage in house related works (Cultural Encyclopedia, 2004; Jung, 1994).  

The girl, nature and their relationships

Starting the analysis on the cover page (see figure 1), we can see the girl standing right in the middle of the page and in front of the wave. While this may seem to be a typical incidence of backgrounding nature — the human is in the foreground and in the center —, in reality it has the opposite effect, especially because of the use of color. The use of black and white is atypical in picturebooks. The complete lack of color in the human figure encourages readers to scrutinize the content of the image. In this case, the title and the wave are the only elements that are colored. Additionally, the seagulls are positioned on both sides and the girl’s size is small compared to the nature surrounding her. Throughout the story, the compositional framing is consistent in the way that the seagulls are always positioned with the girl on the left page, whereas the wave takes up the right page, portraying the balance between nature and humans. This equality in value is even extended into the last page. On this page, the wave crosses the border occupying most of the two pages, while the mom and the girl are depicted as very small on one side of the page. The visual narrative tells the reader that nature is never a background. As such, throughout the book, equality in value is not merely extended, but to some extent also reconstructed.

On the following page (figure 2), the human world and the world of nature appear to be separated from each other by the border that lies in between. However, this is not in a way that nature is excluded due to its inferiority. They are just different. Moreover, the use of color and the shape of the wave give a magical ambience, making it sacred. The works in the picture deconstruct radical exclusion. The girl is also intrigued by nature and shows emotion as she wants to interact and play with it, despite the division she is facing. Similar to deconstructing radical exclusion, the visual narrative also counteracts incorporation. As mentioned above, the girl and the wave are divided by the line in the middle. They may seem alienated from each other, but this apparent division is just created to demonstrate that the value and the meaning of nature is not determined by how it serves humanity as in a hierarchical system. It depicts the equality in the relationship.

Next, in contrast to instrumentalization, the wave is depicted as large in size, with big motion, implying that it has its own power and rights to act (see figure 3). This conveys the message to readersr that nature is not merely an object to be used by humans.

Finally, unlike the previous pages where the wave couldn’t cross the border, it now travels across the line in the middle, splashing its water everywhere (see figure 4). This instance, which breaks the rhythm of the story, invites the readers to carefully consider what it implies. The image again shows the power and the rights of nature, deconstructing not only instrumentalization but also refusing human expectations and stereotypes regarding nature. After the splash, the border that divided the girl and the wave is demolished. Now, the two are united. The wave has left a girl with the blue seashells to look at, and has also changed the color of the sky and the girl’s dress. The fact that both are now blue represents the interconnectedness between humans and nature. This emphasis of the interconnection provides the foundation for the understanding that humans and nature cannot be considered as separate. 

What can we learn from the picturebook Wave?

How does the narrative of the picturebook Wave provide an antidote to alienation, “the belief in a separate self-identity” (Gaard, 2009: 322)? Although the protagonist builds her identity through the various actions she performs, her actions are co-constructed with nature, which denotes the interdependence between humans and the natural world. The process of her observing the wave, getting to know it, crossing the border between the two, and finally interacting with it physically, indicates that the narrative of the story refers to this connection. 

But how does this narrative define the ecojustice problem? The picturebook Wave does not directly deal with, nor subtly imply, any specific environmental issue. Instead, it simply shows a child playing in and with the sea, and most particularly puts an effort in portraying the aesthetic aspect of the sea movement, the wave. Despite the fact that it is a fiction, and an illustration of something real, it “can still generate genuine emotional responses” (Karlsen, 2018: 51) which Walton (1978) called the paradox of fiction or quasi-emotions. What it does is that it triggers the appreciation for beauty of nature among humans providing “a strong ground for environmentalism and for our obligations towards nature” (Karlsen, 2018: 43).     

Lastly, what kind of agency does the text recognize in nature? By positioning the child and the wave on each side of the page, it reflects the “flattened hierarchy” (Mallan, 2018: 237) that none is elevated by its unique characteristic. In addition, throughout the story, the wave comes and goes, consequently affecting the child’s behavior. This implies that nature influences human actions. Moreover, the culmination of the story is depicted when the wave crosses the border in the middle and hits both sides of the pages leaving the child completely soaked and even changing the color of the sky. Then again, it leaves the child with new things, the seashells, to play with. This offers “a presence of diverse human-nature communities and participatory democracy” (Gaard, 2009: 327). 


The relationship between nature and humans is portrayed and conveyed to readers through the conceptual images in the picturebook Wave, which guides them in reading for significance. It uses its visuals to explore avenues, such as moral discussions about nature’s rights, which is essential for fostering children's recognition of the intrinsic value of nature (Kahn, 2003). The book has the capacity to provide a space for children to realize the interconnectedness of humans and nature, appreciate aesthetics in nature and literature, and acknowledge the agency of nature. Additionally, the picturebook Wave also liberates the oppression of marginalized groups such as girls and nature from an ecofeminist perspective. A young girl portrayed free and wild in nature deconstructs the logic of domination that has existed in Korean society and culture, rooted in Confucianism.


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