Animal crackers

Once upon a distant time, children didn’t read too many stories about animals: certainly not the cuddly, emotive, almost-human sort, nor the majestic, learning-to-respect-Nature sort either. For centuries, as far as most books were concerned, animals were either serviceable or edible (and sometimes both) – and children’s books, if they even existed, were strictly for instruction and not for pleasure. In fairy tales, there might well be animals that spoke, or had other magical powers, but they were just as far-fetched as wizards and dragons and seven-league boots.

Two Victorian authors probably did more than anyone else to unleash (sorry) the pack, flock, herd or school of animal tales that is now such an essential strain in children’s literature. Anna Sewell, daughter of a Quaker family, was badly injured in her teens and unable to stand or walk without crutches for the rest of her life. She depended more than most on horse-drawn transport, and was keenly aware of the often appalling treatment of horses at the time: Black Beauty was not intended as a children’s book, but rather as an evangelical tract directed at the vast numbers of nineteenth-century adults who kept horses, rode, drove or worked with them. It was hugely effective: an immediate bestseller, it inspired tremendous popular interest in the welfare of animals, and in laws to promote such. Even today, when cars and vans and tractors have taken over most workhorse-drudgery, Black Beauty remains one of the half-dozen universally acclaimed, evergreen “children’s” classics.

Thirty years after Black Beauty, a talented watercolour artist from a stifling Kensington family began publishing illustrated stories that soon achieved the same unlikely celebrity. Beatrix Potter’s rabbits, hedgehogs, squirrels, frogs and mice had the vivid detail and realism that often came from life studies of dead specimens; at the same time, her creatures wore jackets and waistcoats, bonnets and pinnies, and their earthy burrows were comfortably furnished with kitchen ranges and dining tables. Today we give complete sets of the Tales as baby shower presents – or perhaps we opt for the tasteful shorthand of plates and bowls (china for show, melamine for everyday), bibs and towels – muffling or ignoring the dangerous edges of the nearly-butchered, nearly-caught, nearly-eaten in so many of the stories.

And so animals could feature in children’s stories –indeed, children could have stories, and gradually these stories could become less overtly moral and instructional, and more curious and imaginative. Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang were, like Black Beauty, not originally intended for children, but soon became popular with an adventurous-minded Boy’s-Own readership (and not a few Boy’s Own sisters). Rudyard Kipling, like London, brought a journalist’s keen eye and a storyteller’s silver tongue to the tigers, panthers, monkeys, snakes and especially mongooses (mongeese?) of northern India. Meanwhile Kenneth Grahame conjured a quintessentially English quartet of riverbank and woodland animals in The Wind in the Willows (one of whom drove cars – not always his own – dangerously fast, and cross-dressed as a washerwoman in order to effect a prison break; Ms Sewell might not have seen the funny side). In the years after the First World War, Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle avoided human patients but was able to communicate happily with animals; a generation later, C S Lewis filled Narnia, his other Eden, with the talking and occasionally magical animals of fairytale.

Six decades on, and animal stories for children can be bought pretty well by the metre. There are some truly wonderful animal picture books for young children – look out for anything by Catherine Rayner, Jackie Morris, Emily Gravett or (still deservedly in print after forty years) Brian Wildsmith. (There are, unfortunately, many less wonderful examples, too.) After that comes the still poorly-served stage of early chapter books, overloaded with two distinct genres: Obvious Boy Appeal, with dinosaurs, football, superheroes, aliens or a combination of same; and Obvious Girl Appeal, with fairies, ponies, magic, cute animals or a combination of same – if Fairy Kittens doesn’t exist yet as a publishing phenomenon (I did check), don’t doubt that it soon will, six at a time, with blue-eyed Persians on pastel backgrounds with sparkly stars. I would make a few honourable exceptions, such as Linda Newbery’s Cat Tales which are engaging and readable and also gently wise, with lovely, fluent, understated writing. Even so, I do believe the best children’s writing about animals comes through at the next stage, for the so-called middle years.

Myself, I wasn’t a pony-mad child – I was more in the one-end-bites-and-the-other-kicks camp (and the bit in the middle has a nasty tendency to shrug you off into the nettle patch too). On the whole I preferred cats to dogs; in all other respects, I wasn’t especially animal-minded. Yet, from the great imaginative flourishing of 1970s children’s writing, two animal stories have stayed with me – and stayed in print, too. I’ve written in an earlier post about Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Dogsbody, which splices a superbly original sci-fi thriller with a keenly imagined dog’s life – the sensations, the momentary pleasures, the arbitrariness and vulnerability: in his dog’s body, Sirius is nearly drowned at birth, but rescued and adored by the put-upon Kathleen, all the while struggling to understand the celestial miscarriage of justice that has given him his earthly shape. Then there was Robert C. O’Brien’s fieldmouse-scaled epic, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, also with a strong sci-fi element: Mrs Frisby is the mother mouse whose son Timothy’s illness sends her to seek help from the colony of rats living on the same farm. She soon discovers the rats’ extraordinary story: one-time city scavengers, they were captured and pressed into service as lab rats – and taught to read, and so to read the instructions for opening their cages. Escape, however, is only the beginning , as the rats read more and learn more and develop an ambitious plan for their future; but can they keep their amazing abilities a secret for long enough to put the plan into action? A remarkable combination of imagination and empathy, and gripping storytelling.

One contemporary author who has made a name for writing as compellingly and with as much insight about animals as humans is, of course, Michael Morpurgo, also the subject of an earlier post. I don’t believe Morpurgo ever tells a dull or insubstantial story; for me, his very best tend to tip the balance in favour of their human protagonists (Kensuke’s Kingdom, Private Peaceful, Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea) – with one exception, the astonishing War Horse. Ever since War Horse, Morpurgo’s endorsement of other authors and animal stories has been much sought and prized; two that have earned the seal of approval are established author Lynne Reid Banks’ Tiger, Tiger and Gill Lewis’ Sky Hawk. Tiger, Tiger adds the vividness and potent atmosphere of an ancient Roman setting, in which captured tiger cubs find very different destinies, one as a princess’ adored pet and one trained for bloody combat in the Circus Maximus. Gradually the two tigers are drawn back together, and it seems a final reunion in the arena can only end in tragedy – or can there possibly be a reprieve?

Debut author Gill Lewis’ Sky Hawk explores a chillier, closer, contemporary setting in the Highland glen, where two new arrivals disrupt the existing order: free-spirited Iona, suffering the community’s prejudice against her “bad lot” of a family, and the secret she is the first to discover: the return to the glen of a nesting pair of ospreys. Farmer’s son Callum is more accepting of Iona and is the first to share the secret; and then, half way through, the story twists in a quite unexpected direction to a quite unforeseen, but no less heartwarming, resolution. Lewis’ veterinary training gives her a clear eye and sure voice when it comes to animal behaviour; allied with a distinctive storytelling talent, it’s a powerful combination.

Lauren St. John also drew heavily on her own experience – in St. John’s case, of childhood in Africa – in the vivid and mystical White Giraffe and its sequels. Eleven-year-old Martine comes to South Africa, orphaned by a tragic fire, grieving and not even certain that her stern grandmother wants her there at all. For every joyous discovery – the astounding landscape and wildlife, the warmth of tracker Tendai and his magnificent aunt Grace  – there is a darker element: suspiciously smarmy warden Alex, and the casually cruel it-crowd at Martine’s new school, and her grandmother’s persistent tight-lipped refusal to discuss Martine’s dead parents. Then Martine hears about the white giraffe, not only fabulously rare and valuable (if it even exists), but with a mythic significance in which, it seems, she may play a part, as she discovers an extraordinary gift, a precious secret and a terrible danger. It’s a pacy story in any respect, but its greatest appeal is the intense bright warmth of its South African setting that Martine as a newcomer so quickly learns to love.

All the above explore relationships between animals and their human guardians with insight and sensitivity – but how many contemporary stories give animals a distinct voice as War Horse did? It’s a far harder trick to pull off: Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (Wolf Brother and sequels) succeeded, triumphantly, with the orphaned cub Wolf adopting and adopted by the “Tall Tailless” (human) Torak in a quest to lay an evil spirit that is preying on human tribes and animalkind alike. Torak and Wolf’s voices interleave to give a compelling picture of neolithic life, sharp with sights and sounds, skills and rituals and the intense scent, taste and feel of the ancient landscape.

Back in the present day, S F Said’s Varjak Paw also gets well and truly under the fur of its cat-heroes, helped in no small way by Dave McKean’s atmospheric illustrations. There’s another dash of mysticism here as the discredited Varjak, awkward younger son of a family of pedigree Mesopotamian Blue cats, communes with his legendary ancestor Jalal in order to learn the fighting-cat skills that will save his family from the sinister Gentleman, his black cat minions and a truly horrifying plan for the cats of the city. More pragmatically, Varjak learns to get along with street cats and even to approach dogs in order to stay alive and confront the Gentleman. A gently moral (and ungently pacy) story about courage, determination and acceptance, from an arrestingly original perspective.


Finally, a dazzling piece of storytelling from a debut author that I couldn’t resist, even though Emira, the tiger of the title, is missing for much of the story. Combining the vivid colour – as well as grinding poverty and squalor – of India with a magical tale steeped in the Arabian Nights, Tiger Thief has a Bollywood-worthy cast of circus folk, foundlings, malicious stepmothers, demons, beggars, wise women, evil ministers, puppet emperors and rightful queens in captivity. After a near-fatal accident at the circus, Sharat the tiger trainer begs his father not to go through with a command performance for the emperor himself; but his father ignores him, the performance goes ahead, and Sharat’s beloved Emira disappears before everyone’s eyes as she jumps through the fiery hoop that should be the climax of her act. It seems impossible that Sharat should ever find her again, as a lowly circus boy facing the might and dark magic of the Emperor’s minister Rookh; but he finds an unlikely ally in the city sewer: Aya, a beggar girl who is not all she seems – and, perhaps, neither is Sharat. A breakneck plot that never loses its grip hurtles to a satisfying conclusion that leaves plenty of scope for a much-anticipated sequel. A special mention, too, to publishers-to-watch Nosy Crow’s beautiful production, with mehndi-like patterns decorating every page. You can read the first chapter here – and if you’ve no urge to read further, really, what can I say?

There are plenty more good and popular stories about animals, of course: Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel books, or Richard Adams’ Watership Down for older readers (and not originally for children, either). Booktrust have some excellent lists with more ideas – and of course, information books about animals are a mainstay of children’s non-fiction. Perhaps the child readers of a few hundred years ago, dutifully learning their letters and their Bible verses, would be bemused by the stories we give to animals; but I’d like to think that, given the imagination and power in the best of these, they’d be inspired and not a little envious too.


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