Julia reads the first book she published - Donkeys - to an interested donkey. Photo: Alistair McAra
For us in New Zealand, this is the time of year when sadly animals find their way to the SPCA – hopefully, and often, they then find a good home.
Reading and looking after a pet (rescue or otherwise) have much in common. Each is about building relationships and spending time together. A book can become a friend, a safe place, an escape, a pleasure to return to, something to share. Sometimes a book is more of a visiting pet, and it can go back to the library when it is time, ready for another child. Sometimes books move in. Sometimes a book stays quietly in our mind ready for us to access it much later when we need what we didn’t know we had found in that book.
The act of reading itself is one of empathy, of putting yourself into the shoes of another. A quick trot through your picturebook shelves shows an overwhelming majority of books with animals as main characters. Children identify strongly with animals. Perhaps they feel that they also live in a kind of parallel universe to the adult world and so feel connected to animals in a special way.
Animals are ‘other’, more relatable to a child, who can happily identify with a goat or a bear or a camel.
At Gecko Press – forgive me, this is the only list I know deeply – we are aware of the symbolism of the animals. International perception of wolves differs, for example. It is surprising how many people are afraid of wolves in picture books (adults more than children, I sometimes think). They are clearly not always a good thing before bed. (Maybe we should read wolves for breakfast?)
In our English-speaking part of the world, wolves are a menace and symbolise fear. They will eat us as soon as look at us. But the French love wolves. In the French picture books, we can see a more nuanced wolf character, one often misunderstood, frequently made fun of and even quite funny, mischievous, cute, especially when small! It is not hard to give a wolf their comeuppance.
Foxes eat chickens, and yet are considered more cunning and wily, not so bad as wolves.
The bear counterpart is odd – bears will also eat us, and strike us down in real life, and yet we determinedly believe them to be soft fluffy teddy bear creatures in our picture books – many times bumbling and not absolutely intelligent, but good-hearted, in the way of Winnie the Pooh.
Ducks and birds seem less frequent – not so in New Zealand however, where we have lots of bird stories, kiwi and pukeko predominantly. Snakes and reptiles, the scaly creatures, are also rare. Cuteness is clearly a factor, and bondability. I have only once seen a children’s book with a vulture in it – Mrs Miller in Selma by Jutta Bauer. I find vultures funny, with their tufted bald heads. They seem a little grumpy, like camels. Should we have more camels?
In the recently released Migrants by Issa Watanabe, a Gecko Press wordless picture book, a group of animals must leave their home and find a new place. Issa chose a variety of animals for this dark story of loss, upheaval (and ultimately hope) and empathy.
Drawing animals allowed her to tell the story without mentioning culture or race, to emphasize that her story is universal. She felt that children would be more able to empathize with the animals and she wanted each character to have their own identity defined by detail: “The care I gave to clothes, the choice of colours, and the characters’ expressions.” Each animal is dressed in beautiful, different materials, to reinforce the individuality of the fleeing migrants, who she felt were often portrayed in the media as a faceless human mass.
Being moved by a character in a story, seeing the animals cooking, washing up, preparing for bed, helps us empathize with people who are going through such a challenging experience.
Empathy is a way to start a conversation and it generates further reflection.
It is something that can be learned and taught, from pets and from books alike.
Rescue a book this Christmas!
Have a look at Gecko Press' collection of lovely children's books and join our SPCA Reading Challenge here.
To win a pack of beautiful Gecko Press children's books that feature animals, send us a photo of yourself reading to an animal - real or toy! More details here.