Monday, August 24, 2009

What a stupid lamb ... What a sick, masochistic lion



With the exception of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM and the Kenneth Opell’s Silverwing series, I never liked animal stories. I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief as animals are anthropomorphized to act, dress, and talk like humans. Sure, I can believe in urban faeries, soulless mermaids, and telepathic dragons, but rabbits in waistcoats? Never! Still, animal stories are a cornerstone of children’s literature, and they can convey messages in a different context that make them easier to absorb. In the same way that Shakespeare set his plays in Italy to protect his English interests (namely, keeping his head on his shoulders), animal stories give very human messages that we are more likely to understand. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson, winner of the 1945 Newbery Medal, and Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, winner of the 1947 Newbery Medal, are both timely animal stories with important messages for a post-World War Two world.

The animals of Rabbit Hill are afraid of the “New Folks” who are moving into the big house until the humans prove to be sympathetic to the plight of the indigenous species that inhabit their land. They go out of their way to provide for the creatures, sharing their food, caring for hurt animals, and maintaining the peace. After a bloody war, we need to be reminded that it is possible to live in harmony with each other. The special relationship between the humans and animals shows that we are all interconnected and dependent on each other.

Miss Hickory definitely stretches the limits of disbelief. Made from a hickory nut for a head and apple twig for a body, she learns to live in harmony with the other creatures of the forest when she is displaced from her perfect man-made home. She learns to live in peace with Squirrel, who resides in the hole beneath the tree she nests in. Finally, when she rags on him for being a “brainless wastrel,” he flips out and eats her head. Without her head, she follows her instincts and grafts herself onto an apple tree, making the dead wood come alive once more. I’m not exactly sure what children are supposed to learn from Miss Hickory’s example; maybe if you push others too far, you might get eaten, or maybe life just happens. Maybe it’s how you deal with life that matters. Miss Hickory deals with her challenges with equanimity and grace, ever a little lady. All the other animals teach her how to survive and in the end, she is immortalized in the rebirth of a tree that will bud, blossom, grow fruit that will have seeds to continue the journey. There is life even in dead wood if we work to restore it. Miss Hickory shows that the reward for pushing ourselves outside our comfort level is that we can grow beyond our wildest dreams. After a war, it’s always difficult to start over, but it must be done. And if we fight for peace, like fictional animals, we might be able to act like human beings.

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