I am a murderer. Twenty-three years ago, in the basement of The Children’s Bookstore in Chicago, I was roused to action by the cries of our bookkeeper. “A rat! I will not work in an office with a rat!” I bought a trap, set the spring, and baited the thing with peanut butter. The following morning I was shocked to see a dead beast beneath the sprung bar. On approach, I realized my error: the rat was wriggling. In disgust and terror I grabbed a four-foot-long scrap of wood and bludgeoned. My adrenaline did the trick. Grasping the trap so as not to touch the yucky dangling animal, I darted out the back door and pitched it in the dumpster.
Some may not grasp the degree of my crime’s horror, but they are probably not purveyors of books featuring such benign and clever characters as Ratty of The Wind in the Willows, or Templeton of Charlotte’s Web.
In his memoir Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller recalls how in 1927 while wheeling his tiny daughter in a stroller through the urban canyons of Manhattan he noticed the child pointing upwards. Following her finger he saw not a bird, but a plane. Fuller mused how a modern urban child must see ordinary animals in picture books as mythical beasts, far less real and personal than are the well-known mechanical contraptions of contemporary daily life such as cars, planes and vacuum cleaners.
Children’s book animal depiction practices acknowledge this distance between modern children and real animals: when rats are not to be feared by children as scary biters, then rats are available to be presented as charming and intelligent book characters. (I acknowledge the class element in this analysis, remembering Gil Scott-Heron’s scalding 1969 song that begins, “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with Whitey on the moon.”)
Along related lines, the elimination of the depiction of the killing of animals from picture books is something that has taken place during the course of the Twentieth Century, and so our society’s ubiquitous killing of animals (pest extermination; leather and fur clothing; meat and fish), has become something about which children are not informed through their books.
It’s a huge ellipsis, this unwillingness to explain to children about humans being animal-killers.
As a child in the early 1960s I remember seeing the animated version of Lynd Ward’s Caldecott Award-winning The Biggest Bear as a featurette on the Captain Kangaroo television show. And I loved Andy and the Lion, James Daugherty’s adventurous reworking of the ancient Greek tale of Androcles. The presence of guns and the shooting of bears and lions in these picture books didn’t draw my special notice. Bloodless, stylized gun violence was everywhere on TV anyhow, including children’s television shows like The Lone Ranger.
By the 1980s, when I opened The Children’s Bookstore, shockingly gruesome gun violence was displayed to younger and younger children via the new cable television and rental movie media distribution mechanisms. But remarkably, guns were absent from newly published picture books, and from most fiction for school-aged children as well—changes that increased that peculiar gulf between the safe world of children’s books and the manipulative world of commercial children’s media. In this contest between the creators of the garden of children’s literature—authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, booksellers and parents—and the profit-driven free-for-all of mass culture, those of us on the children’s book side developed and maintained startling power to participate in the molding of social attitudes carried by our kids into adulthood.
Today, young children can play violent videogames and see untold varieties of horrific violence on the internet, without parental oversight. Exploitative mass culture of this kind is very much implicated in the kinds of random violence we fear in school and street. In contrast, I think it’s no accident that the last few decades’ increase in concern for animal rights has coincided with the ongoing positive anthropomorphic depiction of animals in children’s books, with absence of guns and killing.
I feel glad that as a children’s bookseller I have played a small part in increasing the level of empathy our society demonstrates for animals. Perhaps some of that empathy for animals will even translate to increased empathy among people for one another.
This morning I came to an understanding that before winter comes we need to get rid of the mice who for months have been pooping all over the kitchen. This time, however, research on the internet has revealed a benign and clever alternative to murder. All we have to do is take a scrap of wood, lean it against a twenty-inch-tall plastic wastebasket, and put bait inside on the bottom. The mice will run up the wood and leap down. In the morning I can take the wastebasket to a park and release the beasts.
Maybe I can learn from the errors of my past.