Thursday, November 25, 2010

Animals in our children’s books

Being an island, we don’t have a wide variety of animals in Jamaica. We inherited lions and tigers and other continental animals in our Anansi stories from Africa. The steady diet of books from foreign countries means that our children mostly see a lot of bears and wolves and elephants and giraffes and so on .

Once, some years ago my young daughter came home with an assignment from school; she had to draw an animal. When I asked her what kind of animal she wanted to draw, she said :”A squirrel, of course.”  I asked her why she didn’t pick one of our own animals since we don’t have squirrels in Jamaica. I could see her thinking about this with a kind of surprised look on her face. Then she said : “We don’t have any animals.” As far as she was concerned the only valid animals were those in books and on television.

The children are probably wiser now, but we still don’t see a lot of our own fauna in the children books. We could raise the children’s consciousness of our environment if more of our books featured our own animals.

Read some interesting findings on the value of animals in children’s stories in this article:
Animals and nature are top page-turners for children across generations, says new reader research At

The research is based in the UK but it certainly provides food for our own thoughts. Local research- anyone?  Here's an excerpt:
Booktime’s research, which polled over 1,500 parents and carers across the UK, also showed that reading books featuring animal characters motivates children to find out more about the natural world: 44% of children are inspired to want to go to a farm, zoo or safari park to see the animals for themselves. 90% of respondents stated that reading books about animals increases their child’s interest in the natural world and more than half of Britain’s parents report that their children are more inquisitive about animals and nature after reading a book on the subject.
One of the reasons for this enduring call of the wild was hinted at elsewhere in the research with parents and carers overwhelmingly agreeing that animal and nature themed books help their children to make sense of human feelings, relationships and the world around them.(my emphasis).

Generally, in our population, any animal not meant for food is considered more or less unimportant,or to be feared.  We fear lizards, snakes,crocodiles, toads and many of the creatures around us. Boys and dogs are natural enemies. A pet, apart from a dog or cat which might be useful for watching the home or catching mice would be considered a luxury in many households. 

Our folktales sometimes add to our discomfort with the animal kingdom. Take the galliwasp, for instance:  very ugly – looking. Folklore says if it bites you, whichever of you finds water first will live, the other will die. So, if bitten by a galliwasp, rush to the nearest pipe and put water on the spot. I don’t even know if it can bite and nobody knows what water has to do with surviving the bite, but we repeat the story for generations.
Here’s  a definition of the galliwasp: A large, harmless lizard found in marshes in the West Indies and Central America
And another:  A West Indian lizard (Celestus occiduus), about a foot long, imagined by the natives to be venomous.

Animals in our stories seem to be limited to donkeys and goats, and perhaps a cow or two, often  in the idyllic setting of the good old rural days. (I have a published story about a boy and a goat!! It's a modern story so I hope it passes muster. Also, Miss Bettina's House ( Carlong) features domestic and farm animals. ) There are only a few books featuring our wild life - lizards, birds, mongooses; and some domestic animals - cats and dogs etc.
I like to challenge my writing class to think about our environment for ideas for their children’s stories. Take fish, for instance. We have a number of interesting names for our fish – grouper, parrot, butter, king, snapper, and, more recently, the lion fish. What could a writer do in a fish story using those names!
Some years ago, deer escaped from a circus during a hurricane. I haven’t seen any, but people in the hills say they are multiplying. This is a new creature in our environment. What possibilities for stories! And it doesn’t have to be fiction only. Children, particularly boys, respond to non-fiction stories about the environment.

On her anansesem facebook page Summer Edward has been featuring children's book covers from different Caribbean countries. I have taken the liberty of copying a few relevant to this discussion. Check her pages. You will find that there aren't many books featuring animals

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