There is a whole argument that could be had about what is children’s literature and I know that the label puts some adults off reading some amazing writing. Here, when I use the phrase, I am referring to books that were written with children in mind. This does not mean that adults shouldn’t read them or that they aren’t good or well written. In fact, if you’ve ever tried to write for children, you’ll know that it’s exceptionally difficult.
We find animals in picture books, in children’s novels, in non fiction, in poetry, in fairy tales and in nursery rhymes and anyone who has engaged with children and animals knows that most of the time, they find them intriguing and interesting.
There are so many animals in children’s literature that I think we take the idea for granted today. But looking back at the development of the genre of books specifically for children, the natural world had an important role to play.
Before the 18th century there wasn’t really the concept of childhood as we know today and thus no niche for books for childhood. When this changed, authors created a sort of hybrid of nature books and story books – books entirely for education of the natural world but which used a story telling approach. There were also books featuring animals to teach letters and numbers as well as less tangible concepts such as morality. As time went by, the genre expanded and books for pleasure were written with children in mind and the “golden age” of children’s books was found towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th. At this point in time, the cost of paper and printing had gone down and concern for children’s religious and moral wellbeing resulted in an increase in supply of books whilst improved literacy increased demand.
In the 19th century, more people were aware of more types of animals though public exhibitions and very early zoos, this meant that writers had a larger number of familiar creatures to work with. I would imagine, prior to the zebra being commonly known, alphabet books were a bit difficult to finish! In the 1920s and 30s we find a resurgence of more realistic children’s books and now we have an entire range of options.
“Adults tend to think of nature in terms of ‘The Great Outdoors’. They crave distant, glittering vistas, snow-capped mountains, broad, far-reaching valleys. Children are less particular. A hedge, a ditch, a tiny knoll will give them all the countryside they need”
– Christian McEwan
Apparently the most common animals found in children’s literature are dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mice, wolves, foxes and bears. With the exception of the last three, these are all common animals which most children will have seen or be aware of. This makes them characters with which they already have a connection, they already have an affinity with. And the last three, wolves, foxes and bears, are the animals of fairy tales with the bear also being found often in the bed of the child. Again, there is familiarity here.
These animals tend to have their own, pre-established character. For example, we have rabbits who were historically portrayed as a trickster but now tend to be playful, friendly and a little naughty but too much naughtiness is shown to have consequences. Dogs are faithful, obedient, loving and often rescue other characters. This all means that children can open a book, see an animal, and get a very quick sense of what’s going on. And this easy access knowledge is important for those children who are less interested or able to read.
If you walk into a library or book shop and look at the cover of children’s books, you’ll see a lot of animals staring back at you. An analysis of over 1000 children’s books in a library showed almost half of them contained animals. Of those containing animals, only ¼ were in their natural settings, the rest anthropomorphised and even that quarter saw animals carrying out human behaviour. Another study showed that 59% of storybooks in the library in question featured anthropomorphised animals and of the most frequently borrowed books, a significantly higher proportion contained them. There is no doubt that the use of animals in children’s book is both a common one and a popular one.
Stories themselves are important learning tools in early development and anthopomorpised animals in children’s books distance us from human issues and make them less frightening. This means children can learn that the dark isn’t scary, for example, without it being explicitly explained. They are effective tools that can convey concepts and prompt conversations about life issues. Where the death of a human in a children’s book might be considered too much for a child, an animal dying would prompt a different reaction. Dressing animals up in clothes, for example, is one way in which scary concepts can be made more accessible. There are other issues which can be addressed such as bullying, feeling inadequate because you’re small (eg piglet) and because a lot of books feature more than one species, huge topics such as racism and equality can be looked at.
Some research has shown that animals in literature help children to recognise and empathise with animals and brings out the desire to nurture and protect. However, some researchers argue that this presentation of animal creates the “Bambi syndrome” where children believe that all animals are cute and fluffy and can be played with and taken home as pets.
And there does seem to be a bit of a battle going on about whether biological or anthropomorphic books are best. How animals are presented has been shown to affect how children reason. Those who read books with anthropomorphised animals are more likely to use anthropomorphic reasoning whereas those who read biologically accurate stories use biological reasoning. Personally, I feel that a mix is good and that they have different benefits.
Biologically accurate books help children to learn and retain knowledge about the animals involved. And this is true for adults as well – I know that I remember facts much more easily if I’ve read them in a fiction book or seen a film that if I read or watch nonfiction.
Children’s books about nature, accurate or not, draw their eyes to certain things, help them to notice the plants and animals around them in the same way that nature writing for adults can. Animals stories can spark wonder in children and provoke a whole range of emotions, even when portrayed biologically, from terror to happiness to surprise. These traits, plus the wonderful array of illustrative opportunities, mean it is not surprising how popular animals are in children’s literature.