Sunday, September 9, 2007

Animals in our lives

Animals are not for everyone, no doubt about it. For children they can be frightening, messy, intimidating, rambunctious, scary, clumsy, and terrifying. But they can also be one of the most important elements in growing up. First you know your parents, then siblings, then family, then friends, an ever widening circle of comprehending that there are all sorts of ways of understanding the world. And then you get to pets - how do they understand the world that you as a child know and how do you understand them? When there is a pet, there is also responsibility, caring and (if it's a dog) an unrelentingly loyal friend. OK, maybe cats too.

If you are lucky, animals are not only pets. They are the fellow creatures you find all around us; insects, birds, neighbor's pets, wild animals living in the neighborhood, etc. They remind us of the rest of the world out there from which it is too easy to become divorced and isolated at our cost and deprivation.

I don't have any data to support it but it is my impression that children that have grown up with pets and have familiarity with animals, wild or domesticated, have a more settled and adaptable view of the world - they have a better comprehension of the scope for complicated relationships and for misunderstandings and how to adapt to the unexpected.

As we become ever more urbanized, this creeping isolation from nature can become far more pervasive than is easily realized. A number of years ago when we moved to Australia, (which, despite the images of the outback, is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with 80% of the population living in a handful of cities), I was struck by the lack of knowledge most people had about their surroundings. Everything was of course startlingly new to us. In reading up on plant, bird and animal life in advance I became somewhat familiar with the basic bird types. One afternoon in the first couple or three weeks, one of our neighbors was over visiting and as I looked out over the garden I saw one of the many types of local parrot fly across and alight in the bushes. I knew it had to be either a rainbow lorikeet or a crimson rosella. Each of these birds is brightly colored with various raiments of red, green and/or yellow and blue. I asked our neighbor if she recognized the bird. Wanting to be helpful she stared at the bird for a few moments. Being a true Sydney resident, she then offered that it might be a butcher bird. Now the one thing I did know was that a butcher bird was a big grey bird and there was no way that this flying palette could be a butcher bird. The second thing I now knew was just how urbanized Australia had become.

Animals in children's books seem to usually fall into two categories. There are those stories where the animal is an animal: Misty of Chincoteague, for example or Call of the Wild. Then there are those even more numerous stories where the animal is really a human in cuddlier format: Wait Till the Moon is Full or Wind in the Willows.

There are great books in both categories but their effect is distinctly different. In this essay I am really focusing on the former category; what are the stories where a child begins to learn about the world of animals and how they live?

Even when dealing with animals as animals, there is also the risk of anthropomorphizing them; imputing to them feelings and thoughts that we have no way of knowing whether they actually possess. There was a science fiction writer in the fifties and sixties in the UK, by the name of John Wyndham (abbreviated from his gloriously English full name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris) best known as the author of Day of the Triffids. In most of his science fiction novels he demonstrated a subtle thought process about framing his stories. While there was an element of fantasy, the real story usually had to do with the central question - How do we understand another life which is incomprehensible to us? How do we connect with the Other, when we are mutually unintelligible?

This is one of the conundrums with animals for children. Animals can seem to be like us in so many ways but we cannot know that they are. Crockett Johnson has a wonderful tale in his Ellen's Lion that tackles this fact head on and is worth quoting at length.

Sad Interlude

The lion lay stretched out on the soft arm of the big chair. Ellen sat on the footstool and stared at him silently for several minutes before she spoke, in her saddest voice.
"You poor thing."
"Me?" Said the lion.
"Yes," Ellen said to him, and she gently stroked his imitation fur. "From now on I'm going to be very kind to you."
"Are you?" the lion said. "Why?"
"Because you're a poor sad old lion."
"I'm not old." said the lion.
"You're not new, either," said Ellen, looking at two places where the lion's seams were coming apart and at the stain, that never quite had washed out, from the time he fell off Ellen's head into her plate of tomato soup.
"And I certainly am not sad," said the lion.
"You don't look happy," Ellen said.
"I'm not," said the lion.
"Don't you have to be one or the other?" said Ellen. "I do. Right now I'm being very sad, in case you didn't notice."
"You've made it plain," the lion said.
"I'm sympathizing with you. Because you looked so sad ----"
"I'm not sad!" said the lion.
"You're angry," said Ellen. "I've upset you---"
"I am never angry," said the lion. "I am never upset. For that matter, I am never in a good humor either. All this talk of sympathy for my feelings is silly, Ellen. I am a stuffed animal."
"I know," said Ellen, sighing. "That's the saddest part of all."
"Sentimental nonsense!" said the lion, and as Ellen stared at him with eyes that were filling with tears, he went on rapidly. "I'm never sad and never happy, never hungry or never full, never foolish or clever, or good or bad, or this or that, or anything else you imagine me to be—"
"You poor thing," Ellen said, slowly shaking her head. "You haven't any mother, either, have you?"
"What has that got to do with it?" said the lion.
"It just occurred to me," said Ellen, with a sob.
"Now you are being ridiculous," the lion said. "You know stuffed animals don't have mothers. We don't need them."
"You're so brave about everything," Ellen said, dabbing at her tears with her handkerchief.
"I'm neither brave nor cowardly," said the lion.
"You're admiration is as foolish as your pity---"
"All right," said Ellen, wiping away the last of her tears and opening a picture book. "I won't sympathize with you any more if you don't like it."
"I neither like it nor dislike it---"
"Oh, be quiet," Ellen said, without looking up from her book.
She was reading a very sad story about a little tree that was lost in the woods. She read it right to the end without saying another word.

©1959 by Crockett John

The Velveteen Rabbit the lion ain't.

Even in the most urban environment there are still books to open a door to the world around us and begin to expose children to that which is still wild, the unknown and even the unknowable. Following are some wonderful books about animals which children love.

Picture Books

Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Felicia Bond

Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams

Wait Till the Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams

The Kingfisher Treasury of Pet Stories by Suzanne Carnell and illustrated by Michael Reid

Shep by Sneed B. Collard III and illustrated by Joanna Yardley

In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Flemming

The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader

Ellen's Lion by Crockett Johnson

The Legend of Sleeping Bear by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Fankenhuyzen

Floss by Kim Lewis

Carolina's Story by Donna Rathmell and photographs by Barbara J. Bergwerf

Hachiko by Pamela S. Turner and illustrated by Yan Nascimbene

Independent Reader

The Good Dog by Avi

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Black Stallion by Walter Farley

Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Dennis Wesley

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Dennis Wesley

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

Pagoo by Holling C. Holling

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling

Seabird by Holling C. Holling

Call of the Wild by Jack London and illustrated by Wendell Minor

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco and illustrated by William Nicholson

Go Home! The True Story of James the Cat by Libby Phillips Meggs

A Dog's Life by Ann M. Martin

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Black Beauty by Anna Sewel and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg

Young Adult

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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