One 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.
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…
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.”