Loveykins – a rewilding story

Loveykins 1One of my favourite animal picture story books is a 2002 book written and illustrated by Quentin Blake and published by Jonathan Cape.

Loveykins tells the story of Angela Bowling and her discovery of a baby bird torn from it’s nest in an overnight gale.

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She tends to the baby bird in the only way she knows how; wrapping it up to keep it warm, pushing it around the village in a child’s buggy … feeding it completely inappropriate human food and eventually providing a new home in a garden shed…. until the day of the next storm when the fully grown bird breaks free and returns to the wild…

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This story is simple yet depicts in a wonderfully humorous and light-hearted way, how animals can be cruelly imprisoned by well-intentioned humans who just don’t understand the ‘otherness’ of a wild creature.

At no point in the story are we encouraged to believe the bird has human emotions … it receives the care lavished on it in an puzzled and uncomprehending way … and the only hint of what the bird might really want is when we see it looking longingly at a small bug crawling across the floor, just out of reach.

So why does this book strike a particular chord? And why is it important for young children to be introduced in this way to the ‘otherness’ of animals?

In his acclaimed 2016 book ‘Being a Beast’,  Charles Foster writes

“Sometimes I have to be in places that smell of fear, fumes and ambition. When I’m there, it helps very much to know that badgers are asleep inside a Welsh hill, that an otter is turning over stones in one of the Rockford pools, that a fox is blinking in the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat…”

A true understanding of animals and the natural world can help with many of the ills of modern western society. With mental health in children becoming a real cause for concern, reconnecting with the natural world is increasingly being seen as a possible answer.

This needs to start in the nursery with forest schools and children’s picture books… not information books that give a child the false belief that they ‘know’ the animal because they have been taught the biology, the life cycle and what country it lives in; not anthropocentric stories where animals exist only insofar as they relate to their human, and often child companions; and not anthropomorphic stories that dress animals in clothes and have them drive cars so they are not animals at all…

We need more stories that give children an early understanding that ‘the animal’ is something separate, mysterious, independent and unfathomable. We need more stories that awaken their curiosity about the animals, insects and the natural world around them; that help them see excitement in crawling through the long grass at the bottom of the garden.

As a child, Charles Foster tried to get a feeling of what it is to be an animal…

“I had a blackbird brain in formalin by my bedside. I turned the pot round and round in my hand, trying to think myself inside the brain…

It didn’t work. The blackbird remained as elusive as ever. Its abiding mysteriousness is one of the greatest bequests of my childhood.”

 

 

 

Two beautiful animal books

whale polar bearI’ve recently bought two books to share with my grandchildren that evoke the real spirit of the iconic animals they portray.

‘The Polar Bear’ and ‘The Blue Whale’ are two wonderful and informative books by Jenni Desmond published by Enchanted Lion Books. The style of Jenni’s beautiful artwork is well suited to these greats of the animal kingdom and the vast, wild spaces they inhabit, and unlike many other ‘information books’ about animals, they give the child a real sense of the creatures in their native habitat that photographs just couldn’t achieve.

polar bear 1Like many of the illustrations in these books, this endpaper from ‘The Polar Bear’ places the human child in the image in a way that allows children to feel the emptiness of the landscape; to feel the thrill of spotting the polar bear in the distance across the deep blue of the ocean.

The books use the child characters and the normal familiar things from a child’s life (such as bottles of milk), in a way that helps young readers associate with these creatures that they may never actually see in their lifetime. And what I really like is that the books don’t push the ‘conservation message’. Although the author’s note at the front of the books gives a bit of a background to the political and environmental challenges they face, the main text and images focus on encouraging children to first become enchanted by these creatures. There will be plenty of time for young readers to learn about the risks the animals face and the dangers of habitat loss and pollution that they might need to  address as adults. First, allow them to be children discovering the magic of the world, as these books do.

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polar bear blood

The illustrations don’t shy away from depicting the wild nature of the bear, showing it ‘red in tooth and claw’, but in a way that won’t risk traumatizing young children.

And there is humour – such as this illustration showing a small boat with “nine seven-year-old boys” standing on each others shoulders to demonstrate the height of the air exhaled through the whale’s blowholes.

whale 3These books are a joy and I look forward to sharing them with my grandchildren. We need more books like them, but about some of the less iconic but just as important, animals that share our world.

Is Children’s media encouraging the next generation of hunters?

‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury is one of the most iconic and best loved books of this generation. This story is very different from the traditional portrayal of hunters that have appeared in nursery rhymes and fairy stories for hundreds of years, but it still draws on the same primeval sense of fear that young children have of ‘the monster’…

“animal phobias of which no child is entirely free. In his dreams and daydreams the child is threatened and pursued by angry animals,”

In traditional tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, it is the hunter who is all-powerful and who is protector

“the hunter of fairy tales is … one who dominates, controls, and subdues wild, ferocious beasts. “

(Bruno Bettelheim : The Uses of Enchantment; the meaning and importance of fairy tales. Thames and Hudson 1976)

 In Victorian times, society was much more open about the killing and hunting of animals. It was ‘the sport of kings’ and something that many little boys at the start of the 20th century would often aspire to.

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1950 Illustration by Margaret Tarrant for The Child’s Book of Verse published by Ward Lock & Co

Whereas today in Britain we would worry about the mental well-being of a child who chooses to kill wild creatures, in many rural areas 50 years ago, boys killing wild birds with catapults was accepted as normal behavior. Two hundred years ago we were paying our children for each dead sparrow they killed in order to try and protect crops. Before the First World War thousands of skylarks that were agricultural pests, were regularly displayed in the London markets to be sold as a food delicacy. Today few children would even recognize a skylark and their parents would be horrified if their child ever killed one.

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The Sparrow

A little cock-sparrow sat on a tree,

Looking as happy as happy could be,

Till a boy came by, with his bow and arrow,

Says he, “I will shoot the little cock sparrow,

His body will make me a nice little stew,

And his giblets will make me a little pie, too.”

Says the little cock-sparrow, “I’ll be shot if I stay.”

So he clapped his wings and then flew away.

Traditional poem published in the 1950’s

Our attitude to the wilderness has changed from one of fear and subjugation to one of stewardship. Hunters as heroes, adventurers or protectors, seem to have disappeared from modern children’s books.

In the UK children’s book industry we are shy about depicting the activity of hunting or killing animals. This isn’t quite the same in places like the US or New Zealand where hunting remains an everyday part of life for many people and it’s possible to buy children’s books about real life hunting, such as ‘Bear Hunting for kids’ (for 8 to 14 years) by Matt Chandler 2012 published by Capstone Press, and ‘The deer hunting book – short stories for young hunters age 9 and upwards’  by Michael Waguespack published by Country Kid published in 2013.

bear hunting

Bear Huntinting for kids explains how to shoot and kill a bear, track a bear that’s injured, and the benefits of removing its internal organs as quickly as possible. It also talks about safety and the dangers of wild animals, the law and conservation… it reveals a hunter’s understanding of the wilderness and the animals that live there.  If it was a book about stalking and tracking bears or any other animals, in order to photograph them or study them –  and there was no killing – it would certainly be considered acceptable in the UK.

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In the UK we seem to be teaching our children rightly or wrongly, that hunting and/or killing real animals is always bad – yet we tell them it’s OK to eat animals. We are teaching them that the wilderness is a place under threat and the dangerous animals that live there are victims, not predators…

But there is one part of children’s media where the hunting, capture and exploitation of wild creatures is actively encouraged. All of my seven grandchildren are big fans of the Pokemon franchise with its collecting cards, TV shows, books, computer games and interactive app. Until recently I hadn’t taken much notice of this global merchandising phenomenon, but recently I became aware that it is actually based on the now discredited hobby of insect collecting, and it centres on the activities of hunting wild creatures, keeping them captive and forcing them to fight each other! My veterinary surgeon son questions the ethics of this as much as I do.

What subliminal messages are being giving to the millions of children who enjoy Pokemon based media around the world?

Pokemon animals may not be real in the minds of their many fans, but to many millions of children who will never see an actual skylark or know the difference between a stoat or a weasel, perhaps they are?

 

Why animals in picture books?

Our society is starting to recognize that “the spiritual, if not the literal survival of the human animal depends upon a different way of being with our fellow animals”

(Figuring Animals. Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy and Popular Culture. Ed: Mary Sanders Pollock and Catherine Rainwater . Palgrave Macmillan 2005)

As John Berger wrote in his 1980 essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, our earliest human relationship with animals was not based upon animals as food, leather or transport but as “messengers”

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Books like The White Fox by Jackie Morris (Barrington Stoke 2016) capture this sense of the animal as mystical creature linking us as humans to the natural world where there is an underlying bond between everything, and life and death are just part of this whole. The White Fox in Jackie’s story can be seen as a messenger between the spiritual, the natural and the human world.

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 In The Gorilla Counting Book by Anthony Browne (Walker Books 2012) the animal is portrayed in a different way. Browne’s animals seem to be asking young readers to understand the similarity between them and us. As John Berger wrote, we are all “born, are sentient and are mortal….”

Berger tells us that the difference between man and other animals is we are the only species that is aware of ourselves looking back at the animal that is watching us. “Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.”

But Browne’s gorillas that gaze knowingly out at the reader, seem to be trying to tell us that they are also aware.

There are very few children’s picture books like these where the creators try to give children a real sense of the animals and our links with them. More often than not real animals are marginalized and distanced from the world of the child.

 “What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are. ” (Berger)

 So what does the more usual portrayal of animals in picture books actually do?

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Rupert and friends (both human and animal) in Rupert and Rika from the Daily Express Annual 1986

The animal characters created by Beatrix Potter and Disney, characters like Rupert Bear, Peppa Pig, the Tiger who Came to Tea, Olivia, Spot the dog, Elmer and the many thousands of others, have all been “co-opted into the family” as “human puppets”. In this make-believe world “the pettiness of social practices is universalized by being projected onto the animal kingdom.” This is part of a larger “cultural marginalization of animals” that has resulted in a young generation more distanced from animals than any other. (Berger)

Can picture books respond to the new drive to reconnect children with nature in a meaningful way, without just adding to the marginalization of the animal world. Writers, illustrators and publishers have to maybe question and to understand why they need to use anthropomorphized animal characters. Where real animals feature, they need to question what messages they are actually giving. Is there a way of storytelling that can be true to the otherness of the animal?

If children are so cut off from real animals, is it possible for them to learn anything meaningful from picture books?

One book that I feel does try to do something about this is Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Harper Collins 2002. A realistic portrayal of an animal is centre stage. The humans are marginalized and secondary. Jackie French has been living with and studying wombats for over 30 years, and they have been featured characters in many of her books. Her detailed knowledge of them and their relationship to their human neighbours results in a book that is warm, funny and is true to the animal.

wombat small

We need more books like Diary of a Wombat that give children a sense of the animal as other; that don’t define animals in terms of humans and that don’t co-opt animals into a world that makes them eventually unreachable.

Farm animals in picture books

Following the Second World War, developments in farming practices led to the last vestiges of the traditional rural way of life disappearing.

With new intensive and highly mechanized farming practices, and with the growth of the supermarkets and the food processing industry, the realities of where and how their food is produced, have become more and more concealed from modern children. Most young UK children today would never consider there was any connection between the sausages on their plate and ‘Peppa Pig’.

By the 1960’s children’s illustrated books already portrayed an unrealistic world of happy, healthy and accessible farm animals living in a idealized countryside managed by jolly farmers and their even jollier wives. As a young child I loved this friendly, sunny world where children like me wandered fields and farmyards, and there were always lots of baby animals to cuddle.

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Illustration by Cicely Steed from ‘Down on the Farm’ by Enid Blyton published by Samson, Low, Marston & Co Ltd around 1950

The reality of life for the farm animals that fed me and all the other 60’s and ‘70’s children was far, far different, and this is still the case today. But farm animals continue to be depicted in children’s picture books as cute characters that have jolly lives in a lovely countryside.

So does it matter that we try to conceal from our children, the realities of life for millions of animals that we consume every day in the UK? Does it matter that cows, pigs, sheep and chickens appear in an idealized children’s book world where the sun always shines.

In 1996, Juliet Gellatley wrote her book ‘The Silent Ark’ about how she first understood the reality of food production as a 15 year old when she encountered an intensive pig farm.

“There were no cosy sties, no wallowing contentment, just row upon row of individual concrete stalls… Around the middle of each sow was a broad collar with an attached shackle, securing her to the ground. With this restraint she could take little more than half a pace forward and half a pace back.”

It’s no wonder that children’s books have deliberately hidden the reality of how we look after our farm animals. We continue to lie to our children because we are ashamed of the truth that’s simply too awful for young ears and eyes. But maybe we should ask, does this constant deception make us proud, and is there any way we can actually be more honest with children, for their sake and for the sake of the animals?

Time and trees wait for no man…

house trees 1‘House Held up by Trees’ (2012) by Ted Kooser (US poet laureate 2004 – 2006),  and illustrated by the wonderful artwork of Jon Klassen, is published by Candlewick Press. This book is about the natural cycle of life; the life of trees and the lives of men and women. It’s about the way that one man keeps the land around his house neat and tidy and how once he’s gone the natural world takes over and creates something amazing and beautiful. It’s also about how the passage of time affects one family and their home and about the younger generations leaving the land.

House held up by trees

This book can also be used to illustrate the idea that whatever people do to the land, the natural world with its overwhelming strength, will endure. It just might not be suitable for people to call it home any longer…

Mr Potter’s Pigeon

Mr Potter’s Pigeon 1979

potters pigeon 2

Mr Potter’s Pigeon by Patrick Kinmonth and illustrated by Reg Cartwright (published by Hutchinson Junior Books Ltd 1979) is a book that was popular with all my children but which seems sadly to now be out of print. It tells the story of the relationship between a racing pigeon and its owner Mr Potter; but it’s not over-sentimentalized. The pigeon doesn’t even have a name, unlike next door’s cat Lupin.

potters pigeon 1

This gentle story of Mr Potter and his pigeon shed, existing without any obvious grandchildren or child neighbours, is perhaps not child-centred enough for today’s market. But as a beautiful story about the natural world and the many different types of relationship that animals can have with people, it still does the job.