The Turtle is Universal
Reading this article in today’s National Post (front page article, no less), you might conclude that children’s book publishers are using anthropomorphized animals to promote “racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms.” Also, you might assume, it is our intention to demean animals by putting them in clothing and giving them complex vocabulary with which to communicate with each other. We are a bad lot.
I can take the author of the paper’s point that children’s books do often represent heteronormative and patriarchal norms. To use the Post’s example, Franklin, it’s true that he has two parents and those parents do display heteronormative behaviours. So do some of Franklin’s friends. I’m just not sure what that has to do with their being turtles (or beavers, or bears, or skunks). Representing diversity in children’s books is important, and an issue that is much more deserving of having its own front page article. But with regards to animal characters, it’s the story the author is telling that is important—the fact that the characters are animals is besides the point. The same bias or lack of bias is reflected in children’s books with human characters just as frequently.
I’m not sure where Goodnight Moon fits in. The article references it but doesn’t articulate exactly what the problem is. The bunny is saying goodnight to its room. An old lady is knitting. There’s a kitten and some mice. Racial, patriarchal, colonial? I’m not sure. The article is not clear.
The place where this argument really falls apart is race. The article, and presumably the author of the paper, is completely ignoring a major factor in using animals instead of people, and that is the inclusivity that using animals as characters creates. Regardless of her background, a kid reading a book about a turtle having a bad day can relate to that characer. A turtle has no race. The turtle is universal. As soon as you use actual people in children’s books, you’re introducing a bias. The reader no longer necessarily sees herself in the character because the character doesn’t reflect her reality. Yes, Franklin has two parents. But he also eats fly pie and doesn’t wear pants. This small step away from reality that using an animal as a character takes can actually let the story and the experience of the character feel more relatable.
Further, the issue of race and inclusiveness can be addressed more directly and be more free of potential stereotypes when you use animal characters. Let’s you have a group of frogs and a toad comes along, and all the frogs don’t like the toad because he eats different food. But eventually the frogs realize that the toad is really just like them, and everyone gets along. Try doing that with real people. With frogs and toads, you’re allowing the reader to take on any of those roles. The reader can be the majority, the minority or both. The story can reflect whatever that child’s experience is. As soon as you put real children in these roles, the story becomes much more charged and specific, and stops being a universal story.
As far as demeaning animals goes, I find this an odd argument. Children learn about animals from a very young age, and I don’t think it’s giving kids a lot of credit to say they don’t see the difference between Franklin and the real turtle in the pond. A lot more kids would be mauled by bears if that were the case. It’s true that animals have a lot to teach us without needing to be anthropomorphized, but I really don’t see that you can’t have both. Also, a lot of anthropomorphized animals in children’s book reflect the real animals traits—Franklin eats bugs, Beaver lives in a beaver lodge, Otter is a good swimmer. This doesn’t feel disrespectful to me. Kids can learn about animals through anthropomorphized characters too.
Really, what probably bothers me the most about this article is the laziness of it. The woman who wrote the paper has a right to her opinion, and academic papers are written to prove a thesis. That’s academia. But this article is supposed to be journalism, no? So where is the counterpoint? The research? It’s a front-page article that just regurgitates one person’s thesis. Did they speak to a child-psychologist? A teacher? A librarian? A publisher? Nah. Why bother? Just throw it on the front page with a dramatic headline and a giant picture of a beloved children’s book character. It’s guaranteed to generate a lot of comments and feedback (this post included), despite being a sad little article with nothing much to say.