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.

pig pen web

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?

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