By Dr Jane Carroll
Once upon a time, someone nearly bought a stuffed tiger for the Early Printed Books Reading Room [when we were preparing a Long Room exhibition about India – Ed.]. Sadly, the tiger was never bought but, nevertheless, EPB is full of animals if you know where to look for them.
Last week, I brought a group of sophister students from the School of English to EPB to look at animal books, mainly from the Pollard Collection.
Animals have been a part of children’s books since the very beginning. Among the first books printed for children – or at least one of the first books that we could expect child readers to enjoy – was William Caxton’s version of Aesop’s Fables printed in 1484.
While Aesop’s fables probably had a much wider audience originally, now they are almost exclusively aimed at children. The combination of moral lessons with talking animals offered a way to merge education with entertainment and so appealed to parents and to children. In his pedagogical treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), John Locke praises the animal fables as the only books in English “fit to engage the liking of Children, and tempt them to read.”
Animals do not just encourage us to read, they also encourage us to think. Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that animals are “bonnes à penser”, “good to think” (Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, 1962) and the animals we see in children’s books are often used to encourage the child reader to think, to reflect, and to learn.
Some of the animals in children’s literature encourage us to think about how we treat animals. Stories like Samuel Pratt’s Pity’s Gift (1801), Sarah Trimmer’s The Story of the Robins (1875) and even Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) encourage the child reader to treat animals with care and respect. These animals are naturalistic, like the ones represented in James Bishop’s A Visit to the Zoological Gardens (1840) and the reader learns about their natural habitats and habits while learning to treat these animals with kindness.
Many of the animals we see in children’s literature are anthropomorphised. They often wear clothes and stand on two legs and they behave much as people do. They are not truly animals, but act as substitutes for people. They are, as Margaret Blount calls them, “ourselves in fur” (Blount, Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction. New York: Morrow, 1975). We see these sorts of anthropomorphic animals in many of the children’s texts in the Pollard Collection such as W.B’s The Elephant’s Ball (1807).
Perhaps the most engaging text the class examined was Edith Somerville’s Discontented Little Elephant (1912). This richly-illustrated book follows the sorry adventures of a young elephant called Jung Boo who wishes his trunk was bigger. He complains and cries even though his parents tell him that he should be happy with his trunk and that it’s lovely just the way it is. He sets out on a quest to make his trunk bigger and is delighted when he meets a tiger who promises to help him. Unfortunately for Jung Boo, the tiger is nastier – and hungrier – than he appears…
Very early in the text Somerville draws connections between the little elephant and the child reader;
“No wonder that the Dad and Mum
Wished that this naughty child was dumb.
(For little Elephants, and Boys,
Are hated if they make a noise.)”
While Jung Boo doesn’t wear clothes (like, for instance, Barbar does) he lives in a human house and sleeps in a little wooden bed complete with a quilt and pillows. Jung Boo is both a naughty elephant and a naughty child and while the punishment meted out to him by Old Stripes the tiger is absolutely animalistic (having his trunk eaten), the tiger’s final moral message is intended to resonate with child readers too:
“Old Stripes, the Tiger, licked his jaws,
And stroked his waistcoat with his paws,
“When Children disobey
I hope they’ll always
Come my way!”
In this way, Jung Boo vacillates between child and animal and the book is at once an amusing story about the adventures of an elephant, and a didactic story that uses animal characters to help the child reader to think more deeply. [There is a short article about this book in the National Collection of Children’s Books [NCCB] database.]
~ Dr Jane Carroll is the Ussher Assistant Professor in Children’s Literature in the School of English.