Ambiguous Terrain Of Companion Animals In Children’s Stories
A content analysis of 48 children’s realistic animal stories shows an emphasis on pets and petkeeping that can both challenge and support traditional human-animal boundaries. The genre’s sympathetic portrayal of pet animals and the condemnation of their mistreatment invite the reader to challenge such boundaries. Yet the genre’s stereotypical portrayal of these animals also constrains our conceptualization of the human-animal bond. [Excerpted from article]
The data included in this sample of children’s stories:
- Primary characters – Domestic (81%) and a boy (65%)
- Time – Between 19th and 20th centuries (100%)
- Location – Small town, farm or ranch (68%); island or wilderness (22%); city (8%); variable or unspecified (4%)
- Plot – Generally child character overcomes some obstacle with or related to a pet animal.
- Theme – Petkeeping revolving around finding, keeping, or parting from pet animal (71%); misunderstood animal theme in which antagonist fails to appreciate the animal (44%); growth and maturation of child to adult status (38%).
Animal stories project the ideals of animal welfare and invite the reader to renegotiate traditional human-animal boundaries by:
- Reflecting children’s affection for animals through animal realism.
- Following the lives and experience of animals, often from the animals’ point of view.
- Attempting to persuade the reader to avoid specific acts of cruelty toward animals.
- Producing reader sympathies for animals through misunderstood animal themes.
Petkeeping as a literary convention functions to give the stories a kind of predictability that enables readers to recognize the patterns that distinguish this type of literature from others.
The pet stereotype delimits the area in which the reader can negotiate the meaning of the human/animal relationship. Therefore, this same convention that can provide a sense or reassurance to the reader, can also limit the book’s possible range of messages.
This literature also can objectify pets and animals by presenting the buying and selling of pets and the introducing the notion of “owning” an animal. In addition, implicit messages (including dependency and obedience) about what we consider to be the “perfect pet” intensifies the objectification of animals.
In summary, this study of children’s stories finds that humans express love and reverence toward some animals, while at the same time using, abusing, or fearing them. These contradictions are reflected in our rituals and in our children’s stories, which present competing messages in terms of respect for animals.