For some time now, both as a parent reading to my children and as a children’s literature student, I’ve felt that a little too much children’s fiction falls into the animal genre. And it has a long history: the horrific wolf in Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood of 1697, The Tale of Peter Rabbit published in 1902, Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, Stuart Little in 1945. Today, children’s fiction remains saturated with popular animal protagonists like Peppa Pig, Shaun the Sheep, and The Gruffalo.
So, I admit to wondering, as I began reading Aleesah Darlison’s Awesome Animal Stories for Kids, what could be new and interesting about this selection of stories?
As it turns out, this book was a delightful read, and for me, its point of difference was the myriad ways this collection of a dozen short stories makes the reader feel. Short stories are notoriously difficult to write, and yet within the few pages of Darlison’s tales, she is able to make readers laugh, shed a tear, be surprised at unexpected endings, and feel empathy for both her child and animal characters. A large variety of children’s interests are covered: marine life, horses, reptiles, science, and even outer space. There’s also a clever version of the fairy tale The Three Little Pigs (that doesn’t involve pigs).
Darlison’s collection moves between realistic animal stories and anthropomorphic tales, where we visit King Pig in Pigdonia, and hear of the heroic adventures of Alvarado, King of Cats. Animal stories for children remain popular as they enable authors, through anthropomorphism or a relationship between animal and child, to communicate the social ideologies we come to expect in children’s texts: messages such as friendship, selflessness, persistence, kindness. These key themes are central to each of Darlison’s stories, reaffirming the social skills that, as parents and teachers, we aim to impart to young children.
However, it was the stories of friendship and trust between animal and child that were particularly heart-warming. Darlison herself grew up on a farm taking care of animals, and this is evident in her writing: an orphaned foal that is raised by a young boy; a baby magpie cared for by a girl who learns not only to look after her new pet, but to also let go, as her magpie friend becomes independent.
Is this book suitable both boys and girls? Yes. Interestingly, in a recent gender study conducted of animal characters in 100 years of children’s fiction, 23% of books feature male animals, while female animals represent 7.5%. Darlison’s book is beautifully balanced, with an almost equal count of female and male animals: the Big Bad Chicken is a lady who’s larger than life and a little misunderstood; and in a clever twist, we discover that a crocodile called Nigel is, in fact, a Nigella.
After reading Awesome Animal Stories for Kids, your child may suddenly want to spend more time peering into rock pools, revisiting the dinosaur exhibit at the museum, or, even better, taking special care of their pets at home. Hopefully, though, they won’t ask for a pony.
Alison Vassallo is a writer, reviewer and student of Literary Studies & Children’s Literature at Deakin. You can find more of her writing and reviews here.