Take Care of Me, Because You Are the Only One Who Can.

My colleagues on the Sydney Taylor Book Awards Committee know that I have a certain “sensitivity” when the subject of animals in books is discussed. I generally begin any review I write or discussion I am involved in around this topic with the following disclaimer:

WARNING: The Reviewer has a Degree in  ZOOLOGY and does not believe animals experience EMOTIONS the same way humans experience emotions.

It should therefore come as no surprise, then, when I say I had a rather visceral reaction to Jennifer Armstrong’s essay in the Horn Book magazine entitled, “Eating Reading Animals.” In it, Ms. Armstrong attempts to make the case that “if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I eat meat, usually chicken, occasionally beef and lamb, rarely veal, never pork or anything that has lived in water. I eat my meat in small amounts, preferring a majority of vegetables and grains in my diet. I have found however, that meat protein works best with my metabolism. I do my best to buy farm-raised meat from local farmers – it just tastes better, and I am told it is better for me. Truth is I would live on dark chocolate if I could, but my doctor says that is not possible.  My family includes a vegetarian (my son), an omnivore like myself (my daughter), and my husband who calls himself a “mixetarian” because he is mostly vegetarian but enjoys a good, extremely rare steak when the opportunity presents itself.

With that, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Ms. Armstrong begins her essay explaining why adults read animal books to children. There are certainly many reasons, but primarily adults use these types of books to assist in developing the moral and ethical standards of the children in their care. Animal books we read to children and the activities we do with them to support those books all provide examples of right behavior.  “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,” Ms. Armstrong writes.

She goes on to explain that human history has been on an upturn in the moral/ethical behavior scale over the course of the past few thousand years. Yes, we should try to overlook a few wars, Darfur and the Arizona legislature, “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.” Some of us are even beginning to understand that the global climate change that is destroying habitats and endangering species may soon have an impact on human life as well. This is what comes from reading animal-based children’s literature.

However, clearly we have more work to do if the human race is to advance to the next level of enlightenment. We as adults must model for our children the willingness to suppress “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” proposes Ms. Armstrong. Apparently, animal books are going to help us do this.

It is at this juncture that Ms. Armstrong and I part ways. Her response to the question: “What is she [a child] 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?” is: Turn our children into vegetarians!

Mine would be quite different. Not every animal is supposed to be a pet. Most animals are part of the food chain, put on this earth to be part of the ecological system in one way or the other. Remember when you were in school and learned about the Life Cycle…the Rhythm of Life…the Circle of Life…the Ecosystem?  Why not teach our children, in our schools about how animals provide food, for each other and for us.

Today – animal books or not – children, and probably some adults as well, have no idea where their food comes from. They walk into a grocery store and everything they want or need is on a shelf, to be tossed in their basket, taken to a cashier and paid for with a piece of plastic.

When I was a girl, we received baby chicks for Easter (remember, I grew up in a Catholic home.) Oh, they were cute, but when they began to grow up, they were not so cute anymore. My mother gave the chickens to my grandmother, who raised them in her backyard, where we would go and visit them. Feeding them corn meal and grains along with the occasional worms they found in the grass, they grew into large chickens – one rooster and two hens. The hens laid some eggs that we got to retrieve from the nests the hens built. My grandmother used those eggs for our breakfast during our stay. They were delicious.

During one Sunday visit, grandma told us we were having chicken for dinner. She asked us to join her outside. You can guess what happened next. I have always understood very clearly the meaning of “like a chicken with its head cut off.” Were we upset? I guess, a little. Did we eat the chicken for dinner? Yes, we did, and it was delicious. We understood that this was part of life. We raised the chicken to be eaten, and now we were eating it.

Perhaps the 4-H Clubs, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America could join together to start a program for children. They could raise a few chickens on the school grounds, create a school vegetable garden or use a cow to mow the school lawn. Using the products from the “School Farm” in the school’s cafeteria, they could teach children about the proper way to care for animals so that the animals live healthy lives and so can they. Everyone knows that a big pot of vegetable chicken soup is nature’s best medicine, right?

I believe the moral and ethical thing to do is work toward a world where we support farmers who properly and humanely raise domestic livestock, fruits and vegetables using methods that do not compromise the people who work on the farm, the animals or the earth. The food that comes from these farms will be available at a reasonable cost. It will of course be healthy and delicious. There will be no need to visit fast food restaurants.

Rather than suppressing our appetite for all meat to “serve the greater good,” we should suppress our appetite for all food processed using unjust and inhumane methods – that might include vegetables harvested using migrant workers who are underpaid and receive no benefits.

Doing the right thing is never easy. Showing children how to properly care for our earth, and all its inhabitants – animal, vegetable and mineral – is our responsibility as adults. Buying food, produce or any kind of product produced locally is a much greater commitment than simply becoming a vegetarian.

The animals in children’s literature do not cry out to me, “Don’t eat me!” They cry out, “Take care of me and my world, because you are the only one who can.”

Happy Reading,

Kathy B.

©2010 Kathleen M. Bloomfield and forwordsbooks.com all rights reserved.

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One Response to “Take Care of Me, Because You Are the Only One Who Can.”

  1. Liz B says:

    Wow. You took all my reactions to the post and put it together in such a wonderful, well thought out, logical way. Thank you!

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