The Role of Animals in Children’s Literature
I remember the first time I read A Cricket in Times Square. I read it to my children, who were enraptured from the start. If you haven’t read George Selden’s masterpiece, do so immediately! It is the kind of book that finds you holding your breath. It is the kind of book that enchants with all the magic of childhood. It is also a book that relies heavily on the classic cultural depictions of animals, to whom we attribute great innocence (do we not use the phrase “bright eyed and bushy tailed to describe the young and inexperienced?) as well as great humanity. Sometimes, as in the case of Charlotte’s Web, animals are more human than human beings themselves. They value the life of the smallest, runtiest pig. By no accident, Fern also values that life that an adult may well overlook. Children and animals in literature present a special, unforgettable morality.
The story of the cricket in times square is simple: a cricket accidentally finds himself on a train from his woodland home in Connecticut to New York City. When he hops off the train, he is nearly swallowed up by the riot and noise of Grand Central Station! Poor cricket, who only ever wanted to sing in his glade, and sleep under the quiet moonlight.
Luckily, our hero is rescued by a cat, a mouse, and a little boy who is minding his father’s newspaper stand. To the cricket, the city is most unnatural. At the same time, he recognizes its harsh beauty. The lights and the noise are their own sort of energetic music. The crowdedness of the streets brings out the best, as well as the worst, in people and creatures. After all, only in New York can a cat and a mouse be the closest of friends.
To my children, who had not seen New York yet, the city must have seemed unnatural too. They were experiencing it through the eyes of a cricket.
And yet, the lost cricket’s vision of the big city is not so different from the child’s. Children feel small. They are as much at the mercy of the world as the little cricket, whose world was swept away because he fell asleep on what he didn’t know was a train. The world acts upon children and they are helpless to its whims. Like many of the beloved animals of children’s literature–the mice, rabbits, pigs, and cats–they live on the margins. It is terrifying to be a child in the great big world.
Of course, to be a child is also delightful. From Rat and Mole of the Wind in the Willows, to Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web, the marvelous is everywhere. A river running, a flower blooming, a spider spinning–these seemingly small things are appreciated by the child as they rarely are by adults. Animals and children share a perspective in literature. When the child opens A Cricket in Times Square, he greets New York with eyes very much like his own. He encounters the story from a morality very much like his own. The child knows better than anyone that kindness is due to all creatures, great and small.
He began learning this lesson from Aesop’s Fables, and children’s literature continues to use the animal as the moral compass of a children’s story. Who can forget the lessons of Black Beauty, Shiloh, or The Yearling? These books are not War and Peace–their perspective is much narrower. Nevertheless, the emotional and moral questions they raise are just as monumental, if not as complex, as those raised in our greatest adult novels.
Historical fiction does not feature so many animals as other types of children’s books, perhaps because writers in this genre (myself included) are inclined to take their projects a little too seriously. After all, the events recorded in our stories are not fantasies or fables–they actually happened. Are the events diminished when a mouse is narrating? If they are, then we have grown too cynical. If we forget about the magic animals bring to books, we lose an important tool for drawing children into the worlds we write about.
Do you know of any other works of historical fiction starring animal protagonists? If so, I’d love to hear about them! Are you writing a novel from an animal’s point of view? What do you think non-human creatures bring to the table, when they appear in children’s books?