The Beautiful Dolphin SOS

dolphin SOS

This is another beautiful book that tells a magical story about the natural world without sentimentality or anthropomorphism. Dolphin SOS by the Vancouver writer, poet and editor Roy Miki and his wife Slavia, with illustrations by Julie Flett, was published by Tradewind Books in Canada and the UK in 2014.

The book’s based on true events that happened in 2009 on the Newfoundland coast, when five white-beaked dolphins became trapped in ice. The Canadian Government refused to help so spurred on by the sight of the struggling dolphins and their haunting cries, local young people went into action and saved them.

The simple graphic illustrations portray the ice and snow covered landscape in a way that really captures the beauty of the place and you can almost feel the chill in the air. With the rescue of the final dolphin, the reader can breathe a sigh of relief… and there is a real sense of animal and humans understanding each other. Definitely one for the  ‘rewilding picture books’ bookshelf.


Victorian Children’s Books

web cat choked to death little folks 1886

Bring out your ropes to skip and play!

The cat was choked to death today,

I heard her kick and scratch and groan:

And, blessings on the herring bone,

The house tonight is all our own!

This poem and illustration by Palmer Cox (1840 – 1924) is taken from Little Folks magazine of the 1890’s. Palmer Cox was a well known Canadian poet and children’s illustrator. Whilst similar illustrations could be found in any modern children’s book, the words illustrate the unsentimental attitude to animals that was prevalent in Victorian times, even in books for children.

With no internet, television or films, and few children’s books, the majority of young children spent most of their time outside where they were surrounded by animals even in the big cities.  There were horses pulling everything from farm carts to Royal carriages, travelling menageries that toured the country with elephants, lions, tigers and monkeys, farm animals that were reared and slaughtered in every town and village including central London. Monkeys and parrots were often kept as pets and dancing bears appeared in the streets of most small towns, such as this one photographed in St Mary Cray, near London at the time my Grandmother was a child living there.

dancing bear st mary cray webBy considering the Victorian child’s opportunities for interacting on a daily basis with a multitude of animals, we can begin to understand how much the children of today have lost. By looking at the way we portray animals in modern children’s books, we can maybe start to redress this balance.

Books with animal magic 1

out of the woods 1

There are some children’s picture books that capture some of the magic and wonder of the natural world. This one does that…  ‘Out of the Woods. A true story of an Unforgettable Event’ written and illustrated by Rebecca Bond (2015. Farrar Straus Giroux Books, New York).

It’s the story of the author’s grandfather’s experience as a boy, living in his mother’s hotel on the shores of Lake Gowganda in Ontario in 1914. The story details the everyday life of the town and the people who lived there. But when a forest fire engulfs the town, the people have only one place to go. As they stand in the waters of the lake watching the fire, the forest animals emerge from the forest to take shelter with the people. This beautiful story of animals and people coming together in adversity, is one that highlights both the ‘otherness’ of animals and the vulnerability we have in common when faced with the power of natural events.

Why ?

In the 21st century children are constantly warned about the damage humans are doing to the natural world. It’s not surprising then if …

“Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder. “

Last child in the woods by Richard Louv 2005

Our children have less and less direct and meaningful contact with nature and animals. We plan family visits to zoos and farm attractions to let our children ‘experience’ real animals, but these encounters can never provide the thrill of being with an animal in the wild where the human and animal exist on an equal footing. We are spectators.

“The visibility through the glass, the spaces between the bars, or the empty air above the moat, are not what they seem – if they were, then everything would be changed.”

John Berger, Why Look at Animals 1980

But in the 21st century there’s a growing movement to reconnect with nature. ‘Rewilding projects’ are taking place across Europe with the ultimate goal of reintroducing higher species such as wolves, beaver, bears, bison and wild horses to areas from where they have long been absent.

Rewilding is about seeing things differently, and taking a new approach to nature and our place in the midst of it including:

  • allowing nature to look after itself

  • helping people to thrive alongside wildlife

  • securing the good things that nature provides – clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control, amazing experiences

As part of this drive to reconnect with nature there is also a growing interest in ‘Forest Schools’ that aim to help children learn by direct contact with wild nature.

So how is this growing movement being reflected in the media we present to our children? The answer – it very rarely is.

Children’s books are still focusing almost exclusively on animals as cute alternatives to human characters… or as the subject of scientific learning.

The wonder and ‘otherness’ of animals is still largely ignored.

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?