Three weeks ago, I visited the Animal Tales exhibition (open until 1st Nov) at the British Library, which reminded me of the piece I wrote for the Middle Grade Strikes Back Blog earlier this year on the topic of animals in middle grade fiction (books for 8-12 year olds).
What strikes most of us working in children’s literature is the prevalence of the use of animals. Books teach us about our place in the world, who we are, how we live, and about how others live and feel. And animals give us a unique perspective – we only know what it is to be human by way of our relationship to what isn’t human – ie. that which is animal.
Animals in literature provide several opportunities to play with experiences: they can be outsiders (as children are often portrayed in literature – looking in on an adult world); animals are wild – they show us how we once were wild ourselves, innocents – before we were tamed by society. Children are ‘tamed’ into adhering to the constraints of society – no adult lies down in the middle of Tesco’s and has a tantrum about not being bought the Frozen advent calendar (well, not that I’ve witnessed). Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is a perfect example of an animal being shunted around from pillar to post and made to behave – be tamed. And by being wild, and outside the rules of our world, animals and children can have more adventures – Where the Wild Things Are speaks to this. Judith Kerr’s bestseller, The Tiger who Came to Tea, may be set in a home environment, but the introduction of a tiger (the wild) makes it an adventure. One of the most thrilling animal adventures for children, SF Said’s Varjak Paw takes the domesticated cat and casts him off into the wild.
The exhibition also drew attention to literature’s fascination with metamorphoses – humans turning into animals – from Actaeon in Ovid through to that poor family in Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger. In Dahl’s story it is to teach the Gregg family that hunting is bad, In Beauty and the Beast – the man is punished for not showing kindness and so is turned into a beast. Both the family and the man are transformed back into their human forms in the end – the Greggs for repenting, and the Beast when he finds true love.
Animals are also an accessible way to teach children about the environment. Although fracking and diesel pollution may be topical, for children seeing the damage an oil spill can inflict on a bird holds much more immediacy. The Last Wild by Piers Torday uses animals to ask children to address how we treat the world in which we live, as does Watership Down.
Lastly, animals work as the perfect allegory. The anthropomorphism in children’s picture books allows us to address all those awkward issues which would be harsher and more direct if they were told using people. By using animals posturing as humans they teach us empathy – we see what it is that makes these animals human – they are wearing our clothes, and eating our food, and behaving as we do; their relationships with each other are human. Winnie the Pooh likes his little smackeral of something, and is a loyal and loving friend, The Very Hungry Caterpillar gets a stomach ache after all that delicious human food, The Cat in the Hat is our wild alter ego, the quick thinking mouse uses human cunning and logic to outwit The Gruffalo, and Farmer Duck is the quintessential animal with a human thought process. And I’ve talked previously about using animals to teach very young children about difficult topics such as death.
The Wolf Wilder is the latest book by Katherine Rundell.
Wolves have long been a strong feature of children’s literature – an animal of choice. From the wolf’s threatening posturing yet ultimate comeuppance in Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs (everything is little in comparison to him), to his wry stupidity in Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, to his prowess, strength and bravery in The Last Wild trilogy and Wolf Brother. Children are introduced to the wolf symbolised by the French horn in Peter and the Wolf and can be inspired by White Fang’s menacing yet ultimately tamed wolf.
It is with the wildness and taming that Katherine Rundell starts her book. Feodora and her mother are wolf wilders: people who re-wild a wolf that has been wrongly or cruelly tamed (by the Russian aristocrats). Feo and her mother live in the snowy woods of Russia. When their place in the world is threatened, and when her mother is taken away by the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to flee with her wolf pack, and set in motion a search and rescue for her mother.
Actually, Rundell’s novel starts like this:
“Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl”
and from the language on the first page the reader is hooked.
Using wolves, Rundell touches on all the aspects of animals discussed – from the relationship between Feo and her wolves – the locals call her the ‘wolf girl’; she understands their needs and desires so much she almost becomes one:
“She could howl, her mother used to say, before she could talk.”
Her childish innocence mimics that of the wolf cub she tries to protect; her feeling of being an outsider like the wolves; and her protectiveness of the environment in which she lives. The wolves behave as the animals they are in the book, and indeed the whole premise is that they should be re-wilded – tuned back to nature – but Feo herself has a relationship with them not unlike a protective loving relationship that one might have with siblings or very close friends.
The characters are fierce and flawed and completely loveable – the reader can’t help but wish them to succeed in their endeavours – from Feo’s hunt for her mother, to Ilya’s fulfilment of his dreams. They stand up for what they believe in, and are ultimately brave in the pursuit of happiness.
But it is the language to which the reader returns. Katherine Rundell’s writing is as close to poetry as prose gets, from her description of ballet, “A kind of slowish magic. Like writing with your feet,” to her descriptive passage about the five kinds of cold including wind cold: “It was fussy and loud and turned your cheeks as red as if you’d been slapped.”
Rundell continues to weave this magic through the book, writing with apparent simplicity, and also wittiness, and yet each word carefully selected for its ability to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind.
It’s the kind of book every child should read for its wonder and magic, and characterisation, and ability to transport the reader to another time and place. It’s only weakness lies in the plot similarities to Rooftoppers, Rundell’s prior novel, but it’s a minor point.
Overall, one of the most beautifully written novels you’ll find for children. The kind of book, as Katherine Rundell says that “makes you feel taller…more capable of changing the world.” Read it to your child, otherwise you’ll miss out hugely! It’s a modern classic. For 8+yrs.
There are some wonderful illustrations too, but I reviewed an early proof copy, which did not have them.
To buy a copy of the book, click here.