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Writing About Animals

Regular readers of these posts will find that I make recourse to the writing of Bruce Handy, who’s written a wonderful book about children’s literature called Wild Things The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017).

A close up of a sign

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Bruce Handy is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and writer for several notable US journals (e.g. New York Times Magazine). Here is his author page at Simon & Schuster: https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Bruce-Handy/75805730

I recently discovered Handy’s book in the local library, (thus the barcode in the photo) and I recommend it to anyone either fascinated by the topic of children’s literature or who simply loves the act of reading to one’s kids (as Bruce clearly does; it’s something I share with him). The book is well-researched, engaging and often profound. I could go on and on about it, but my blog space is limited.

Because I write about animals, I was most curious to see what he had to say/share about the subject. In his chapter 4, Why A Duck?, Handy talks about “the uses of talking animals” as follows:

“In his 1962 book Totemism, the French anthropologist Claude Lévis-Strauss famously observed that humankind had learned early on that animals weren’t just ‘good to eat’ but also ‘good to think’ with. Given that they come in all sizes and shapes, attributes and habitats, winged, legged, finned, and tentacled, animals dovetail with human instinct to sort. Compare, and label; for toddlers, they are right up there with colors, shapes, and numbers as essential objects of fascination. Animals also served for millennia as nifty canvases for the deep-seated human need to color the world with our own prejudices and preoccupations. Thus the lion, when not terrorizing donkeys, came to represent nobility and courage, the fox cunning, the mouse humility, the snake evil. At the same time, given that animals’ essences are even more unknowable than ours, they could also appear touched by the divine. People told stories about animals, created myths around animals, identified with animals, worshipped animals. Along with the sun, the moon, and the stars, they provided longing and sparked dreams.”

Although my animal characters are (I hope) multi-dimensional, not representative of one particular trait, I couldn’t have said it better. Anyway, who am I to question an authority like Claude Lévis-Strauss?

Of course, not all books about animals or told from an animal’s perspective are for children. Russell Smith, in an April 27, 2019, article for the Globe and Mail, “The Enduring Appeal of Animal Literature,” talks about Richard Adams’s book Watership Down. It is, he says, “not a children’s book: It is an allegory of human society, especially of tribal structures, of environmental degradation and of migration.”

Adams’s follow-up book, The Plague Dogs, is a story with a different (and even harsher) theme — one more than appropriate for the virus-laden times in which we live — and is another with limited appeal to children. In the article, Smith also refers to George Orwell, whom he calls “the father of all 20th-century animal allegory stories.” I couldn’t agree more. Animal Farm, which rips apart any fanciful, misguided notions about the wonders of communism, is far from being a children’s story. 

Although I’d like to think The Ravenstones is of a similar genre, more appropriate for an adult audience, I hope it still appeals to mature teens. We shall see.

Now, if any readers wish to question the idea of animals displaying moral behavior, let me refer them to Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Pierce is a philosopher and Bekoff an ethologist. They argue (and they are not alone in making this argument) that animals have “a broad repertoire of moral behavior” (p. iv), which fall into three clusters: 1. cooperation (altruism, trust, punishment, revenge); 2. empathy (caring, helping, grieving, consoling); and 3. justice (fair play, sharing, desire for equity, expectations of what one deserves and how one ought to be treated). (p. 12)

They refer to an evolving body of research into animal behavior (Jane Goodall being the most famous of such researchers) into primates, social carnivores, cetaceans, elephants and rodents (p. 13), demonstrating differences among species (one wolf pack vs. another) and the predominance of affiliation in animal interactions (as distinct from conflict and dominance).

I’ll finish with two direct quotes from the book:

“[The] innumerable situations in which we see individual animals working together aren’t merely veneers of cooperation, fairness, and trust but the real thing.”

p.vii

“Ought and should regarding what’s right and what’s wrong play an important role in their social interactions just as they do in ours.”

p. iv

I’d like to think The Ravenstones saga captures that sense of morality, those codes of behaviour, the sense of right and wrong and, ultimately, what happens when those codes are broken.

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