Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn




The issue of whether animal stories are for children, adults or allow a confluence of interests runs through much criticism of the genre (Keenan 1987; Hunt 1994). No doubt part of the confusion arises from the way the animal story has shifted between adults’ and children’s literature. Such debates over the implied reader appear in one of the most influential late nineteenth-century animal tales, The Tales of Uncle Remus, starting with Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). The majority of the stories concern the adventures of Brer Rabbit and his adversaries. The narratives are, for the most part, told by a former slave, Uncle Remus, to a little white boy. Collected by the book’s author, Joel Chandler Harris, on the plantations of southern America, the stories are thought to have derived from the trickster legends of Anansi and Wakaima that originated in West Africa. Brought to America with the slave trade, Anansi morphed into Brer Rabbit and a new stock of folk tales about trickery and survival took root. Written in a phonetic approximation of Remus’s speech, the stories have, since the middle of the twentieth century, been subject to criticism for their racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation (Moore and MacCann 1986). Recently, however, scholars writing from specifically African-American perspectives have begun to reappraise the plantation stories collected by Harris and others. Joyce Hope Scott, for example, suggests that they can be read as works in which the inversions of power encode the resistance of slaves to their masters (Scott 1989: 73).

If African-American criticism has been concerned with the stories as racial allegories, recent children’s literature criticism has tended to focus on whether these tales of murder, butchery and possibly prostitution are intended for children at all. Clearly relevant to such a discussion is the issue of whether children’s literature can ever address the ‘child’ (Rose 1992). In the case of the Uncle Remus stories, the folk tales upon which Harris drew were directed to an adult audience (with some children present). It was Harris who provided the frame narrative in which Uncle Remus tells them to the little boy, thus effectively redirecting them towards child readers. Thematically, however, the animals in the stories are competitive ‘men’ obsessively devoted to one-upmanship. Furthermore, several recent critics have noted that, although Harris, or an earlier source, may have tried to expunge the more troubling references from the narratives, they remain in the margins. Tales like ‘The Sad Fate of Mr Fox’, in which, through Brer Rabbit’s scheming, Brer Fox is beheaded and the Rabbit subsequently presents his head as a meal for his widow and family, still has the power to shock. Elsewhere, close attention to the pronouns of the famous ‘Tar Baby’ story reveals unpleasant connotations of sexual violence (Keenan 1987: 123). Finally, John Goldthwaite has written at length about the implication of the Brers’ trips to the house of Miss Meadows and the gals (Goldthwaite 1996: 272-81). Although Goldthwaite assures us that these days the house, in its present textual form, connotes nothing more than sociability, in an earlier version it seems likely that Miss Meadows was meant to be interpreted as the Madam of a local brothel. Understood as a ‘sporting house’, a whole level of meaning is opened up which is elided in the text.

The Wind in the Willows (1908) is another animal story of the period which foregrounds questions of implied readership. As Peter Hunt notes, the book


sits ambiguously on the boundary between literature for children and literature for adults. But in doing so - and this may be the secret of its success - it defines areas where the child’s and adult’s imaginations coincide. Without doubt, the idyllic, irresponsible riverbank is an ideal playground for children, but it is also a nostalgic escape for the adult.

(Hunt 1994: 10)


Although it has been argued that there is something ‘childlike’ about characters such as Mole and Toad, at the same time Grahame’s text arguably addresses adult interests more than it does children’s. Indeed, Hunt suggests that the use of animals in the book might be seen as a way of creating characters who can effectively fuse the ‘dual role of child and child-in-adult’ (Hunt 1994: 53). Talking animals are not then to be regarded as merely child substitutes: they are complex figures that frequently call into question the binary distinctions between adult and child. As such, they can allow for a confluence of the interests of different readers.