Yes, I’ll admit it. This week I was a victim of click bait on Twitter:
I saw this and mindlessly clicked:
I read the article with horror and spent the next hour constructing a passionate counter-argument.
Then I thought I’d better do a little research. I could find no trace of either the Canadian Education Committee or of Harold Wright. After more digging, of course, I found the link to CBC’s satirical This is That.
I felt my outrage go limp.
CBC had baited me, and I’d fecklessly fanned the flames of my righteous indignation to the point of indigestion.
I took a Tums.
But the entire episode left me thinking about children’s and young adult books that feature talking animals and anthropomorphized animals, in general. As a teacher-librarian and a children’s literature specialist, I find children’s books featuring animal protagonists to be charming and illustrative. As an educator, I’ve always felt that talking animals built empathy for animals and humans and indeed worked on the level of allegory for human behaviour. I think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan to name but three of my favourites. For me these are the precursors for more advanced study of such works as Orwell’s Animal Farm, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Martel’s Life of Pi, and even those hobbitty creatures.
So I found the U of T research cited in Dominic Ali’s recent article, “When kids’ books feature animals with human traits,” troubling:
“…kids’ books featuring animals with human characteristics not only lead to less factual learning but also influence children’s reasoning about animals.
Researchers also found that young readers are more likely to attribute human behaviors and emotions to animals when exposed to books with anthropomorphized animals than books depicting animals realistically.”
Well, this sounded much like the claims of the fictitious Harold Wright of the non-existent Canadian Education Committee. I felt my ire rise again.
I do see the argument that an exclusive literary diet of talking and dancing mice can limit a child’s understanding of the natural world. I agree with the lead author of the study, Patricia Ganea, that a variety of books from magical realism to realistic depictions of the natural world are important. We need to feed the imagination and the intellect. But I would argue that the imagination is better fuelled by stories featuring animals that talk and behave as humans than by the factual science book. (And the notion of displacement seems a significant means for children to deal with how badly or kindly humans disguised as animals can behave.)
Missing in the study is any discussion of the vital role the parent or adult reader, teacher or librarian plays in guiding young minds to see the link between human and animal, or to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, or to grapple with the often harsh and cruel realities of the animal kingdom. Early readers need adult guides to help them understand, and they have such helpers in schools, libraries and at the bedside to explain these crucial distinctions.
I leave you with two lovely sites to consider:
The Guardian’s “The best talking animals in children’s books”
PETA Kids’ “The Best Books for Kids Who Love Animals”
Writing Quote: “What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem might cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is a part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.” – Old Yeller, Fred Gipson (American author, 1907-1973)
Writing Tips: Tom Moorhouse, author of The River Singers and The Rising on writing about animals.
Writing Prompt: Musings on humans by your pet or choice of animal.