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.

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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.

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