Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn




Despite the complexities of the reading situation, the belief still seems to persist in much critical writing on animals in children’s literature that when children read such stories they invariably ‘identify’ with the animals (Townsend 1976: 120-1). This ‘identification’ between ‘child’ and ‘animal’ is believed to be the result of animism. Children are said to have some innate sympathy or connection with animals and to imagine that they can communicate with them (Baker 1993: 123). Such an idea rests on a number of a priori assumptions. First, it depends on the idea of an essential, knowable ‘child’ (see Lesnik- Oberstein 1994). Second, it also relies on a certain construction of the animal. In relation to the ‘child’, following the work of Aries (1962/1973), the ‘child’ needs to be seen as an ‘identity which is created and constructed differently within various cultures, historical periods and political ideologies’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1998: 2). In the eighteenth century, as Keith Thomas observes, far from having sympathy for animals, evangelical writers were preoccupied with how cruel children, particularly boys, could be to animals and birds (Thomas 1983/1984: 147-8). The animistic connection between ‘animal’ and ‘child’ is, therefore, part of a specific Romantic construction of childhood. But such ideas are still, arguably, deeply ingrained in ways of thinking about childhood, with the animal-child relationship fulfilling different functions depending on the discourse that is applied to it (Kenyon-Jones 2001). These definitions of childhood, as Tess Cosslett observes:


carry along with them (or proceed from) complementary implied definitions of the adult ... So the adult becomes a person who is divorced from nature, rational, logical, and scientific. This is also an adult who knows what the differences are between animals and humans, how our species is defined. The child, by contrast, has still to learn these markers and rules, and exists in a space of play in which boundaries could potentially be transgressed.

(Cosslett 2002: 476)


In more pragmatic terms, one could also question the claims of animism and note with Malcolm Pittock that even young children do not make the mistake of attributing speech to ‘proper animals’. Clearly, this suggests that at an early age they recognise that the talking-animal story is a literary convention that has no basis in ‘reality’ (Pittock 1994: 167). Another problem with the animistic view of childhood is that it fails to take into consideration that the connection between ‘child’ and ‘animal’ is one made by adults, not children. After all, just as with all other children’s literature, it is adults who write, distribute (and probably buy) such stories (Blount 1974: 15; Rose 1992: 2).