Aardvarks to Zebras

The recurring use of animals in children's books

“Over half of all children’s books feature anthropomorphised animals; that is, animals given human traits and characteristics.”

I grew up on ‘The Wind in the Willows’, the Beatrix Potter stories, classics like ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’. And later on, I encountered ‘Alice in Wonderland’ then ‘Animal Farm’ – and I think I can safely say that none of these had a huge impact on how I regarded animals.

They were stories, at first enchanting and later eye-opening. When Ratty and Mole decided that there was ‘nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’ I knew where they were coming from. And when I read that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ – well, I knew what Orwell was really writing about.

Over half of all children’s books feature anthropomorphised animals; that is, animals given human traits and characteristics. ‘The Water Babies’, written in 1862, is the earliest children’s classic I can think of just now but I’m sure there are even earlier examples out there. I guess if we really wanted we could head right back to Aesop and his fables, and he was hanging around in 620BC.

“When Ratty and Mole decided that there was ‘nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’ I knew where they were coming from.”

There are some Terribly Serious studies that suggest reading books with animals as the protagonists is largely unhelpful to children – and there are others that conclude that today we place higher value on independence of thought than on factual memory and that stories featuring animals help our creative and imaginative faculties.

If the worst case scenario is true and children start to humanise animals that they encounter in reality, is there real harm in that? I would far rather a child feel some empathy for a hurt dog than pass it off as ‘ah, it’s just a dog’. There is a line where children aren’t quite sure what is fact and what is fiction – how many of you had an imaginary friend, or knew somebody who did? – but eventually this line is drawn and understood. Unless we encourage our children to be dreamers and to look at the world a little differently, we can expect remarkably little progress in the future.

Just as the Tooth Fairy makes losing a tooth a little less traumatic and a little more exciting, so reading the story of an octopus who learns to start coping with his feelings of loneliness and gloom can help a child engage with their own emotions. There seem to now be three types of books on the marketplace: non-fiction, fiction, and a strange genre that straddles the two and doesn’t seem to appreciate how children are perfectly capable of implicit learning. Books that market themselves as Important Reads claim, for example, that they will help children understand the lockdown of 2020; when did the role of the parent disappear? It seems there is now a book for every single eventuality: buy a children’s book to teach them how to use the potty; get another one to show them how to dress themselves, and yet another clogging up your shelves will tell them that it’s good to eat their vegetables.

These books are replacing the parental role – and for those who argue that some children may not have parents who can complete this role, I suggest that those same children are extraordinarily unlikely to then have access to these books…

 

a book for every single eventuality: buy a children’s book to teach them how to use the potty…”

‘Jolly Ollie Octopus’ was written with three purposes in mind: to engage, to educate, and to enchant. The use of an octopus makes this immediately accessible to children from all backgrounds – animals are, as others have suggested, the great equaliser in stories. Do children need to see other children who have the same physical appearance as them in a book? I’m not so sure. Role models as they grow up, absolutely, and thank goodness for Kamala Harris who has just taken up that very position for so many children.

Beware gimmicks with books. Beware publishers or ‘experts’ informing you what your child needs. Beware an industry that is prone to sway on the whims of the media. Find the books that will make your child think and feel, because sparking their curiosity will give them the best and most powerful start in life.

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