Animal Studies Bibliography

Oswald, Lori Jo. 1995. Heroes and victims: The stereotyping of animal characters in children's realistic animal fiction. Children's Literature in Education 26(2): 135-149.

The portrayal of animals in children's fiction has changed over the course of the 20th century. Earlier animal novels, by the founders of the genre, usually portrayed wild animals who were heroic for their intelligence and strength in surviving against adversities such as hunters and dogs. Human characters were not important in these stories except as dangers to the wild animal, the protagonist. As the century progressed, human characters became central to the story, and heroic animals became domestic animals protecting humans against dangers. The most common type of story was the story of dogs protecting humans from wild animals (bears, bulls, lions, rattlesnakes, etc.). The dogs in these stories are heroes because they saved humans--their usefulness is based on these actions. Their actions are portrayed as natural dog behavior, and they are often killed in the process of their heroic acts. The dogs also often kill that offending wild animal, but while the dog must sometimes protect its owner from bad men, dogs in these stories never kill humans. This predominance of animal over human death reflects a devaluing of animal life in these stories. Often the dog comes near death from the fight, but usually survives due to its strength as a previously wild animal. Horses are the second most common protagonists in children's animal fiction. They often protect people as well, but rather than protecting someone with whom they have a bond, horses are portrayed as having a special sense of danger and saving humans that way (e.g. refusing to cross a bridge that the horse can sense is broken in the middle). This difference is attributable to the purposes of dogs and horses in our society--dogs have been bred to be loyal companions to people, whereas horses have been bred to serve as beasts of burden. Horses' heroic value, therefore, is based on their hard work in assisting human endeavors (carrying large packs all day, etc.). Wild animals are only rarely used in this genre, and if they are, they usually become a pet to a human before saving them. Critics argue that these portrayals of animals are dangerous stereotypes because by anthropomorphising animals into moral thinkers and principled actors, we ignore their natural identities (143) in ways that allow us to mistreat them. It seems too much, however, to dismiss the dog stories as stereotypes, because in fact, there are many true accounts of similar actions by dogs. The dangerous stereotype is when animals are portrayed as victims. This type of story was most prominent at the end of the 19th century (anti-cruelty novels) and since the 1980s (animal rights movement efforts). In-between these two periods were the heroes described above, stories in which an animal was only a victim temporarily, often to provide an opportunity to form a bond with the human protagonist, and was afterwards strong, wild, and intelligent. In many cases, the human-animal bond is clearly reciprocal, and a dog and human take turns saving each other from some threat. In the animal as victim stories, however, animals are portrayed as lifelong innocent victims. These stories often include a growing up theme in which children mature when they challenge cruelty to animals and the concept of animals as property. Animal rights novels from the 1980s have failed to create support among children because they portray the animals as helpless and one-dimensional. The novels are romanticized, sentimentalized views of animals perhaps because of the increasing distance between humans and animals/nature, which allows us to fill the gap with whatever we imagine rather than observing real animal behavior. Romanticizing animals both allows us to avoid giving them equal consideration and rights (as with putting women on a pedestal) and leads to disappointment in real interactions with animals. It appears, then, that the founders' accounts of animal heroes, with attention to their individuality, are the best type of realistic animal fiction.


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