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Eating Reading Animals

Charlotte's Webby Jennifer Armstrong

The children’s book industry is as full of animals as Noah’s Ark. I found a list of the 150 all-time best-selling hardcover children’s books tabulated as of the end of 2000; fifty-two of them are explicitly “animal books” — books that are about animals or that feature animals as main characters — and many other books on the list feature animals in secondary roles. When greater than thirty-three percent of best-selling books (over time) have a common theme, we can assume that this isn’t just a fad but an established preference. We can conclude that children love books about animals, and that when they are given a choice they frequently choose books about animals.

Speaking as a children’s book author and as a parent, I can say that adults write, illustrate, publish, select, and read with children stories about animals for a variety of reasons. One reason is to share information about the natural world. In early childhood, young children feel that the natural world is an extension of themselves; they instinctively connect to animals and animal stories. Another reason we create or read animal books with children is to encourage a sense of stewardship for the earth and its creatures; to elicit compassion, gentleness, wonder, curiosity, and to learn to extend that out into the world. Animal books for children celebrate the triumph of small, defenseless creatures (witness all those mice and bunnies!), and we encourage children to identify with and share that triumph. Animal books celebrate the courage of the lion, the loyal service of the dog, the skill of the spider, the patience of the ox, the curiosity of the monkey, the fidelity of swans. This, I propose, is an important stage in the moral/ethical development of children, to learn about these values and develop and strengthen their innate moral capacities.

As a complement to books about animals, adults often seek out live animal experiences for children — petting zoos, farm visits, egg-hatches in advance of Easter, family pets. These live-animal experiences extend the moral/ethical development of children by warning against cruelty and neglect, by encouraging responsibility and compassion, and by promoting justice, especially toward the defenseless.

We may thus conclude that the role of animals in the moral/ethical development of children is significant; animals take on this role in their books and in the real-life experiences that we promote for them. Animals teach us “humane” behavior, those behaviors that embody our highest human ideals. All of us concerned with literature for children, and the education and development of children in general, have animal guides to help us in our work.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, at the University of Virginia, has been studying where morality comes from. In reviewing anthropological evidence from across cultures, he and his colleagues concluded that we come into this world hard-wired for five categories of moral behavior. The first has to do with harm and care; we seem, by nature, to be designed to care for others and seek to minimize harm. The second category is fairness and reciprocity, known in Christianity as the Golden Rule, but also appearing in nearly identical form in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Brahmanism. Next comes loyalty to group, then respect for authority, and last comes what Haidt refers to as purity/sanctity, specifically, the idea that personal control of your body — what you do with it, what you put in it or on it — can lead to virtue. These findings, that we seem to be born with the capacity for moral development in these areas, should be of special concern to people who work with children. Children are not the blank slates so many people think they are but arrive with a set of moral and ethical capacities that develop alongside their physical and mental capacities.

And what are these capacities for? Moral/ethical refers to that realm of our cognition and reflection where our highest ideals dwell, where we consider questions of what is good, what is decent, what is just. In other words, it refers to that part of our intellect that understands why we pull over to the side of the road at the sound of a siren. We don’t pull over for ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars simply because it is the law. After all, thoughtless obedience isn’t particularly moral. Claims of “just following orders” do not protect us when we are following unethical laws. Moral/ethical development allows us to understand that we pull aside for emergency vehicles because there is an underlying value of safety (avoiding speeding vehicles) as well as an underlying value of compassion for people (whom we may never know) involved in a crisis (which may never be explained to us) as well as an underlying value of fairness (since we hope people will pull aside when we ourselves are being rushed to the emergency room or when the firefighters are racing to our house.) Moral/ethical development also allows us to recognize which rules and laws are unjust or immoral, and gives us the fortitude to defy them, as we have seen in labor and civil rights movements in history.

Probably most of us agree that one of the functions of education, whether at school or out of school, is giving children a framework for making the “right decisions” and “doing the right thing” in their lives. “Right decisions” and “doing the right thing” can be assumed to contain a moral/ethical component. In other words, “right decisions” are not merely decisions made with self-interest as their primary motive, but with some motive of “doing the right thing” in the context of our society or our place in the world. Doing the right thing involves considering higher values such as loyalty, mercy, self-control, courage, service, self-respect and respect for others, constancy, patience — all of them elements of the five moral capacities that Haidt described, and it involves more than just consideration and reflection. Doing the right thing requires that we consider those higher values and then enact them even in the face of inconvenience or discomfort. Making “right decisions” and “doing the right thing” is often very difficult. (If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to teach children how to do it.) It’s not enough to tell children that they have to do the right thing or they’ll get sent to the time-out chair or the naughty spot. We want them to make the right choice because it is the right choice, not just to escape punishment. We’re not looking for mindless obedience; we are looking for the critical thinking that makes moral and ethical evaluations, and we have to model that for children with our own critical thinking and our actions.

Although you might at first balk at the suggestion, I hope I can persuade you that moral/ethical development in society has been on an up escalator since the beginning of civilization. Consider the long view of history: from tribal hatreds and violently actualized prejudices, we have gradually come to recognize the common thread of humanity in all people. Slavery is now almost universally regarded as repellent, although it is not yet extinct everywhere. Racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice and gender bias are likewise in retreat, if not yet erased. Mocking or abusing the mentally or physically handicapped is in most places considered an appalling moral failure. I grant you that on the ground it doesn’t always appear that we are making progress, but if you do take the long view of history, you will see an ever-climbing trend away from anarchy and brutality toward cooperation, justice, and nonviolence. Just as the individual grows up into her moral and ethical capacities, so do societies, so does civilization.

This can be regarded as a widening of the circle of compassion. By projecting ourselves into the lives of people who seem at first glance to be different from ourselves, we recognize our connection to them. More and more, the boundaries are dissolving between “us” and “them.” A similar projection from people to animals has also been on the increase. Agencies such as the ASPCA and The Humane Society have been on the lookout for animal welfare for over a century; and by and large, the public shares their standards. We no longer approve of burning live cats for amusement, as folks in earlier centuries did. Bear-baiting has all but disappeared as a sport, and although dog-fighting and cock-fighting still exist in our own country, they do so illegally, pushed underground by popular opprobrium and the force of law.

Furthermore, we understand the loss to humanity inherent in the extinction of animal species. Appeals for reversing climate change and halting habitat destruction exploit our real fear of losing polar bears, whales, and tigers. More and more we feel ourselves part of the web of interconnected species that is Earth’s biosphere. Lose the panda, and we ourselves will be diminished. The moral capacity for loyalty to group is becoming enlarged as we begin to expand our understanding of what “our group” is.

I suggest to you that the moral/ethical escalator is still moving upward. I doubt that there is anyone among us who can claim moral/ethical perfection or who would claim it for society in general. That being the case, we can assume we still have some upward climbing to do. One of the goals of civilization is to promote this continued climb; or perhaps it is more correct to say that the continued upward climb is what advances civilization. One way that you know if civilization is being advanced is if people are suppressing those desires that cater to their selfish appetites in preference for upholding the more abstract ideals of dignity, compassion, and justice; in other words, those ideals that serve a greater good. This is the moral/ethical capacity in action. These are the “right decisions” I spoke of earlier and that we strive to model for children.

Part of our job as educators, by which I mean librarians, teachers, children’s book authors, parents, illustrators, editors, is to help children onto this up escalator of moral/ethical development that creates a civilized society. We use animal books and animals themselves in that process. We deliberately work to create and strengthen the natural bond between children and animals in our quest to promote civilization and its ideals of dignity, compassion, and justice. We enlist animals as our partners in our efforts to deepen our capacity to give care and lessen harm, our capacity for fairness, our loyalty to our group, and our desire to place virtue above the gratification of personal and/or physical desires.

So what I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun. There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion. How does a child’s developing moral/ethical self resolve the jarring disconnect between the animal books she is given to read in the library and the animal meat she is given for lunch in the cafeteria? What is she to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?

It is increasingly easy to make the case against eating animals these days: the news media offer stories regularly. There is the world-wide environmental degradation and destruction that livestock farming promotes; we have the terrifying public health risk posed by the widespread prophylactic use of antibiotics in farm animal feed; there’s the geopolitical, economic, and cultural destabilization that follow when the farmers of poor nations feel compelled to abandon traditional food crops in order to grow commodity animal feed for world markets, and thus become dependent on food aid from richer countries. I could go on and on.

But I am talking about books, and children, and making right decisions. More and more I feel that the only argument against eating animals that really counts is the moral and ethical one, and I believe that there will come a time when eating animals will be as morally disgusting to all of us as burning live cats for entertainment is now. We are charged with being role models to the children we serve. We cannot make their food decisions for them, because that decision rightly belongs to the family until the child is old enough to make that decision for herself. But we can live the lessons we see in children’s books every day. Be kind to animals. Protect the defenseless. Don’t take advantage of, trick, or do violence to those who are weaker than you or who lack opposable thumbs and powerful frontal lobes. Uphold justice by speaking up when you see injustice. Extend your loyalty not just to your family, your church, your race, your country, and your ethnicity but to all living things. Show children that those right decisions that books encourage us to make have a real place in the real world, and have real consequences; that they matter beyond the pages of their favorite books.

Doing the right thing is often inconvenient, painful, scary, or socially awkward, and it usually means giving up something that you really don’t want to give up, or doing something that you’d really rather not do. But look at the animals looking back at you from the pages of the books we love, and ask yourself if you can follow the standards they uphold.

More Vegetarians

Not only is the children’s book industry as full of animals as Noah’s Ark, it’s full of vegetarians, too. Here are just a few:

Coe Booth

Tanita S. Davis

Emily Jenkins

Peg Kehret

Barbara Kerley

Uma Krishnaswami

David Levithan

Carolyn Mackler

Yuyi Morales

Christopher Myers

Lauren Myracle

Julie Anne Peters

Cynthia von Buhler

Scott Westerfeld

Jacqueline Woodson

Jennifer Armstrong’s recent books include The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History (Knopf) and Once Upon a Banana (Simon). She gave up eating animals five years ago. From the May/June 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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