‘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.
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.
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 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.
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?