Earlier this week, in response to “Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics,” Laura Frey, from Reading in Bed, commented on remembering some childhood favourites of her own. She referred to Redwall, which is the first in a series of twenty-two books by Brian Jacques. I haven’t read the whole series, but it’s one that loses you in a world of animals living in a medieval-style abbey.
Laura’s comment got me thinking more about animal stories and longer books featuring animal characters. Picture books about animals are most likely the first books that children will encounter. From the Little Bear books to the Franklin series to Peter Rabbit, such books are formative for a child’s reading life. My own kids loved all of these books. One of the earliest picture books I remember about an animal—in this case a bird—was P. D. Eastman’s Are You my Mother? These books have the virtue of finely conceived anthropomorphized animal characters that speak straight to the heart of any child.
Animals appear in countless longer books for kids as well, sometimes more anthropomorphized and sometimes less, and often showing the line between good and evil. Cluny the Scourge, a nasty bilge rat from Redwall, is one of the more serious animal villains from such books. Jacques series is one of those in which it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad—for one thing, the good guys are vegetarians.
Another of my favourite animal books is Watership Down by Richard Adams. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about rabbits in reading this book. A group of rabbits, led by Hazel, leave their home in the Sandleford Warren to find a new home in the nearby downs. Remember, these are rabbits making their way across a couple of miles of tame English countryside. But for these rabbits, the world is full of danger and unexpected turns. It’s a far cry from the bunnies of the Beatrix Potter books, and General Woundwort is another great animal villain—nastier than Cluny himself.
Talking animals appear in all sorts of texts. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are one of the kindest old married couples you’ll meet. Funny they don’t have any kids of their own. As part of his education, the Wart, from The Sword in the Stone, is turned into every animal imaginable. Those texts that focus more exclusively on animal characters also incorporate an animal morality and code of behaviour. In Narnia, for example, talking beasts have a higher place in the order of things than dumb beasts. In Watership down, the rabbits recognize their own compassion and fellowship, or animality, in the face of the cruelty of humans.
The treatment or mistreatment of animals is something else to think about with many of these books. The Harry Potter series, as a case in point, includes many animals, but they are often the subject of transfiguration classes, and the Ministry of Magic has a department expressly for dealing with magical animals, The Department for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, which we first meet in The Prisoner of Azkaban during the trial of Buckbeak the hippogriff. Granted, Harry, Ron, and Hermione take Care of Magical Creatures, and Hagrid is fanatical in his love and respect for animals, but rowling’s world remains somewhat ambivalent when it comes to the treatment of magical and non-magical creatures.
I’ve mostly been commenting here about animal fantasies, or fantasies involving animals, but don’t forget about all of the books that feature realistic animals, or show kids interacting with real critters. Books about boys and dogs or girls and horses are genres unto themselves. My own daughter loved The Pony Pals, and as a young teen, I loved reading realistic stories involving animals, such as Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens.
Books about animals, whatever the kind, become a way of helping you to connect with the natural world, even if you live in the city. I’m fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where I’m able to get my fill of nature: from the robins, crows, and merlin’s that make their home here, to the rabbits that eat my flowers and the crazy squirrels that live in the giant spruce in my backyard.
Find yourself some animal books, and remember all those creatures with whom we share the planet. I’m always interested in hearing about what other people are reading, so I welcome your comments. And don’t forget to check out Laura Frey’s blog, http://reading-in-bed.com. She’s funny, and a sharp reader.