Pages from "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter, public domain.
“Animals are Us,” a new exhibition at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, explores and questions the historic use of anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to animals—in children’s literature with the help of Lesley professors Mary Ann Cappiello, Erika Thulin Dawes, and Grace Enriquez.
“We often bump up against this notion that ‘kiddie lit,’ as children’s literature is sometimes called, is something that maybe we shouldn't take too seriously. These are just books for kids after all with cute animal characters. Yet the stories that we hear in childhood help to shape our identities, what we see as possible and how we view the world,” says Dr. Thulin Dawes.
The three Graduate School of Education professors were asked to join the executive advisory board for the exhibition due to their extensive knowledge of children’s literature, evidenced on their popular School Library Journal blog The Classroom Bookshelf. From there, they helped to shape the content of the exhibition with curators H. Nichols B. Clark, Meghan Melvin, Jean S., and Frederic A. Sharf.
“While literary anthropomorphism offers children a way to learn by immersing themselves in stories marvelous and ordinary, it has, until recently, uncritically mirrored the values and prejudices of dominant cultures,” write the Lesley professors with their fellow Classroom Bookshelf collaborator Katie Cunningham in “The Pitfalls and Potential of Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature,” an essay in the exhibition catalog.
The old and new
The exhibition, comprised of books in the Peter J. Solomon Collection and newer titles, evaluates how animals represent cultural norms, race and mores and how those themes have changed over time.
For example, Maurice Sendak’s representation of Native Americans in 1962’s “Alligators All Around: An Alphabet,” which depicts alligators in feathered headdresses above the words “Imitating Indians,” is displayed with the 2018 “Bowwow Powwow,” which features a girl and her dog attending an annual powwow and includes a dream sequence of anthropomorphized dogs. The bilingual book was written by Brenda J. Child, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder, both Ojibwe, and translated into Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain, Lac La Croix First Nation.
Sendak’s book is among many classic children’s tales that have been condemned for racist overtones. In his essay in the catalog, Clark points out Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” in which the titular character’s costume mirrors blackface minstrels and his smile that of a woman of color. But criticisms are not always black and white. The Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, written by Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who collected and adapted the tales of African Americans in the postbellum South, have mixed reviews. Some see the tales’ depictions as racist while others value the use of African American dialect and stories passed down through Black communities as a valuable contribution to the literary canon.
The Classroom Bookshelf professors recommend this approach to kids’ books: question everything.
“I have always had this very curious and critical eye whenever I approached children's literature that was deemed classic because my questions were always, who deemed it a classic, classic for whom, and who is represented in all of this?” asks Dr. Enriquez.
All books perpetuate cultural norms, which is not inherently wrong. In writing her popular Peter Rabbit tales, Beatrix Potter presents the British culture in which she lived. When those books are the only ones children see, says Dr. Cappiello, “then you have a problem. And when books written and illustrated by white authors who present cultures other than their own, using animals as those characters, you start to see how problematic that is.”
Other examples of anthropomorphism, such as the Elephant and Piggie series, use animals to provide emotional distance from a topic that can give kids a helpful perspective, says Cappiello. And stories like “After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again” by Dan Santat, a retelling in which the clumsy egg hatches into a bird, show that not all animals in books need to be stand-ins for humans. In fact, animals play a critical role in Humpty Dumpty’s recovery, similar to how animals can provide therapeutic support in reality.
Do no harm
Still, the Lesley trio believe there should be fewer animals in children’s books.
They cite data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found “books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes, etc. represent nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019.” Children’s publishing has a serious diversity issue.
Some books, including Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s retelling “The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit,” have reclaimed and corrected problematic narratives, but using more human characters and creating more opportunities for non-white authors to publish stories born out of their own cultures, experiences and traditions would go a long way to improving the issue.
Cappiello, Dawes, and Enriquez, who teach in our graduate Language and Literacy program, say the exhibition highlights these issues and welcomes people of all ages into the discussion.
“The potential of it is to prompt us to look more closely at things that we might just take for granted. It helps us to question those assumptions that we make… and to go more deeply to look at the scenarios: where does that work well and where does it cause harm?” says Thulin Dawes.
The exhibition is on display at the Houghton Library through January 7, 2022, and through an interactive virtual exhibition.