Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn




As a very ancient genre, animal stories owe a great deal to their antecedents. Indeed, like all genres, its ‘elements and conventions ... are always in play rather than being simply replayed’ (Neale 1990: 56). An obvious example is Aesop’s tale of ‘The Country Mouse and the City Mouse’, which was reworked by Beatrix Potter in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918). But such intertextual connections need not be conscious. Lavon Fulwiler has shown that a modern film like Chris Noonan’s Babe (1995), based on Dick King Smith’s novel The Sheep Pig (or Babe: The Gallant Pig in the USA), can be profitably read in relation to Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (Fulwiler 1996: 93-101). However, in looking at animal stories, we also need to be aware of the effect of competing discursive claims made by historical, scientific, legal and cultural attitudes to animals. It is significant that books which seek to address the issue of our inhumane treatment of animals, for example Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), follow in the wake of the formation of movements such as the RSPCA (formed in 1824 as the SPCA). Alternatively, such texts can be seen as actively contributing to changes in the way people treat animals. In one celebrated example, copies of Black Beauty were given out free to cabmen as a guide on how to treat their horses. Hence, although animal stories can be related to generic antecedents, they also need to be seen as part of a dynamic genre that responds to both literary and socio-cultural shifts in attitudes to animals.

As both Carpenter and Prichard’s The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984) and Victor Watson’s The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (2001) provide broad reviews of the animal story genre, I have decided to take a less comprehensive but more detailed approach. In the survey that follows, while mapping the major types of animal story I want to consider how writers use ‘animals’ in these stories and the ways that readers might respond to them. At this point, I must emphasise that, in everything that follows, we only see various constructions of non-human animals: there is no ‘real’ or ‘actual’ or ‘non-textual’ animal which could ever be recuperated outside of discourse (Lesnik-Oberstein et al. 1999: 8; Walsh 2001).