In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Animal characters as an entre to history

Dear Aunt Debbie,

My memory of Watership Down is vague -- I read it in college, on the recommendation of a friend who was captivated by it in 7th grade.  I think I was too old at that point for it to change my life.  One of the things I remember liking about it, however, was how animal it is.  Yes, it's on one level a commentary on human society, but it's in such a clear rabbit-perspective -- my memory is of rabbits who think and observe in a way rabbits really might, if they had a certain level of consciousness.  Which got me to thinking.

There are so many books about animals in which the animals act essentially like humans: The Wind in the Willows comes to mind, and of course there are lots of others, especially in the picture book world.  The animals chat with each other, have tea, wear clothes.  In what other books do animals appear straight-up as animals, interacting only with other animals as part of an animal society rather than in concert with humans?  I am drawing a blank here, but wondered if anything springs to mind for you.

I'm at my parents' place tonight, and was scanning their shelves for inspiration when I came across a couple of my childhood books which don't try to depict animal society at all, but anthropomorphize animals as a way to write about famous historical figures.

These two books, both by Robert Lawson, are tales of great men as "written" by their animal companions.  The subtitles say it all: Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin By His Good Mouse Amos, and Mr. Revere and I: Being an Account of certain Episodes in the career of Paul Revere, Esq. as recently revealed by his Horse, Scheherazade.

I read and reread Ben and Me in elementary school.  Amos the mouse is a fine narrator, funny and somewhat self-important (a bit like Franklin himself).  By his account, Amos helps Ben Franklin figure out all kinds of inventions, from the Franklin Stove to the discovery of electricity.  In a climactic scene, Amos goes up in a basket tied to the proverbial kite and is hit by lightning (Franklin tricks him into going up when there's a storm, and won't pull him down out of danger because he's so obsessed with the concept of electricity).  Amos is burned and furious, but otherwise okay.  The book is a terrific entry into Franklin lore, good, kid-friendly historical fiction, packed with drama.

Mr. Revere and I never grabbed me quite as much.  Perhaps it's because a mouse can go more interesting places than a horse; perhaps because Franklin is a more interesting man, on the whole.  Still, it's another accessible and interesting entry into American history.  

On the slightly pulpier side, Ally Sheedy (yup, that Ally Sheedy) wrote, at age 12, She Was Nice to Mice: The Other Side of Elizabeth I's Character Never Before Revealed by Previous Historians.  In it, a mouse living in Queen Elizabeth's court makes friends with the queen, and because of her small size is able to overhear conversations (and more) between Elizabeth and Essex, among other people.  I loved this book.  I have no idea how good it would be on a reread, but Elizabeth's court is juicy material, and Sheedy has fun with it.  I look forward to finding my old copy someday.

Love, Annie

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