Children and Animals and Stories

I found this “quote of the day” on why children like animal stories:

Infants, like puppies, kittens, and other young animals, not only share a diminutive size and appealing ‘cuteness’ but are also alike in their innocence and dependency on larger creatures.

Uh, no. Unlike apparently every other goddamn adult on this freaking planet, I can actually remember my childhood and more important, what I thought and how I felt about things when I was a child. And I can tell you this: I didn’t like animal stories because animals were small and cute and innocent and “dependent on larger creatures.” Was Babar, King of the Elephants, small? Was he “dependent on larger creatures”? No, he was a fucking elephant who became king of all the other elephants, therefore everyone was dependent on him.

I’m going to tell you right now why kids like animal stories: because animals are powerful. They can do things kids can’t, like run fast, climb high trees, tear at things with their teeth, stomp through the jungle, roar across the veldt… and mess up nice, neat human lives with their anarchic spirits. Animals are also free. Animals don’t have to do what mummy and daddy say. Animals can live independently in the wild. Animals can have adventures. Even pets, once they get out of the house. And since they have claws and teeth and animal instincts, animals can take care of themselves. They are the very opposite of being “dependent on larger creatures.” And innocence and cuteness has nothing to do with it.

The quote above has nothing to do with what kids think and feel. I keep saying this, and sometimes I feel like I’m talking into a void: children don’t need to translate fictional characters into their own lives. They don’t have to read about people “just like them.” They don’t have to “recognize themselves” in a story. They don’t have to have a story featuring schools like their school, homes like their home, characters just like the people they know. This tendency towards making childrens’ stories all about stuff they can “identify with” (that is, characters and situations that mirror their own lives) is instead stunting their imagination and growth. I daresay that’s considered a good thing now. Imaginative children might imagine that they can live a different life than the one their parents want them to accept. Well we can’t have that, can we.

It’s all about power and control. Children want power over their own lives. Adults want to control them. This is fine for the physical environment (for example, you wouldn’t want to give a five-year-old the keys to the car), but when it spills over into the mental area it becomes problematic. You can overtly censor a child’s reading material, or you can do it by subterfuge, as we do now when we do things like misrepresent the reason children like a certain type of story. This is why I don’t support anti-censorship campaigns. Telling a kid they aren’t allowed to read something because you don’t think it’s appropriate is more honest than slyly guiding them towards “approved” literature that reinforces a certain way of thinking. But being honest with kids isn’t something adults care for all that much. That’s something else I remember from my childhood that everyone else seems to have forgotten.

5 thoughts on “Children and Animals and Stories

  1. Jess

    You’re statement about power and control hit a nerve that hasn’t been exposed in years.

    When I was in elementary school, I took a shining to war stories. I was fascinated and enjoyed the freedom of checking out books on the subject at the school library – until the librarian confronted me one morning.

    I brought my book to the counter, ready to check it out. The librarian informed me I had checked out too many books on this subject, took the book and instructed me to go find another book.

    I was embarassed and wondered what boundary I crossed. I felt as though I was being punished for some transgression that was beyond my comprehension, but knew I had no choice in the matter. I did as told and read the other book, which I found boring. I read only enough to complete a book report; chapters were scanned for pertinent information only.

    So yeah you’re right. I do remember my childhood. I, also, remember the animal stories didn’t catch my attention; mostly because they didn’t bear any resemblence to my observations, or encourage me to think beyond the pablum they were trying to pour into my brain.

    1. Andrea Harris Post author

      I vaguely remember the “you’re checking too many books out on one subject” rule at my school library, which is why I didn’t use it much. They had a lot of arbitrary (to me anyway) rules which made it nearly impossible to check out a book. This was in a city where there were very few bookstores (this was in the late 60s and early 70s) and those catered to adults. My parents, however, were great readers, and I got my first library card (for the public library) when I was four.

      I’m not sure what kind of animal stories you’re talking about that didn’t resemble your observances or encourage you to think. Obviously I’ve never seen a talking animal never mind one that goes on adventures, but that didn’t stop me reading. And I never needed to be encouraged to think. To solve problems, yeah, because that took effort and effort interrupts my reading; but I’ve always thought about things. I don’t even know what “it doesn’t make you think” means. When I’m reading, I’m thinking.

  2. kae

    I hated high school English. Having to read a book and then analyse the deep meaning of the book, what the author was trying to say. It annoyed the hell out of me. Fair enough with books like Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Brave New World, but Wuthering Heights?

    If you want to know what the author was getting at try to ask the f*king author before they die. And unless you’ve actually asked the author or there is some record somewhere of what the author was saying (reading between the lines?).

    When I was a child I loved reading, I’d read just about anything. When I was twelve I bought a box of books from a small charity auction. In the box were SF books, one of them was “A Scent of New Mown Hay” by John Blackburn, it caught me in the SF trap and I was a fan for years. It was like a horror story only much better, more interesting!

    When I read books as a child and a teen I wanted to escape. The less like my life, the familiar, the story was the better. Why must we try to read all this psychological rubbish into what children want/need to read nowadays? Harry Potter, no matter what people think, was the best thing to happen to children’s reading habits in years, it got plenty of children picking up books to read.

    Now I mostly read biographical books and reference (gardening, etc), because truly, there’s nothing new in writing which interests me!

    1. kae


      And unless you’ve actually asked the author or there is some record somewhere of what the author was saying (reading between the lines?), why attempt to analyse?

    2. nightfly

      Nobody asks the author what the story is about, because then they don’t have the fun of making the story what they want it to be about. To them a book is nothing but a large Scrabble set they can use to spell out only the thoughts already in their head, rather than getting any new thoughts in. Their small minds would crack if they had too much crammed into them.

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