A Genre of Animal Hanky Panky? : Animal representations, anthropomorphism and interspecies relations in The Little Golden Books
Abstract: This dissertation investigates the visual and verbal representations of animals in a selection of commercial picture books for a young readership of preschool children. The picture books selected are part of the Little Golden Book series. The first twelve books in this series were published in the United States in 1942 and are still in print today, while new books are continually being published. Because these popular picture books have had a broad readership from their inception and the books in the series have a uniform aesthetics, a comparative analysis provides insight into mainstream human-animal relationships. Children’s literature is never innocent, and fraught with power imbalances. Animals become political beings, not only in the sense that they convey a didactic message, but in the sense that each animal representation carries a host of ideas and assumptions about human-animal relations with it. Using a theoretical framework that is grounded in Human Animal Studies (HAS), and more specifically literary animal studies, this dissertation analyzes the representation of human-animal interactions and relationships in different contexts. Before the advent of HAS, anthropocentric, humanist interpretations of animal presence in children’s literature used to be prevalent. Commercial picture books in particular could benefit from readings that investigate animal presence without immediately resorting to humanist interpretations. One way of doing that is to start by questioning how interspecies difference and hierarchy is constructed in these books, verbally, visually and in the interaction between words and images. Based on this, we can speculate about the consequences this may have for the reader’s conceptualization of human-animal relationships. In children’s literature speciesism and ageism often intersect, for example when young children are compared with (young) animals or when animals are presented as stand-ins for young children. This dissertation explores the mechanisms behind the representation of species difference in commercial picture books. The aim of this study is to analyze how commercial picture books like the Little Golden Books harbor a potential to shape young readers’ ideas about humanity and animality, species difference and hierarchy and the possibilities of interspecies interactions. The socializing function that is an important component of all children’s books makes that these picture books can shape readers’ attitudes from an early age. When reading children’s books featuring animals, the particular way these animals are represented guides the reader towards an ideology – and in the West, this ideology is predominantly anthropocentric. In Western cultures, children and animals are commonly thought of as natural allies, and as such they are often depicted as opposed to adult culture. This dissertation identifies the ways in which certain conservative tendencies are activated by these commercial picture books, but also emphasizes that they can be a subversive space where anthropocentrism can be challenged. The case studies developed in this dissertation demonstrate how even so-called ’unsophisticated’ picture books contain interesting strains of animal related ideology worthy of in-depth analysis. The visual and verbal dimensions of these picture books show that these stories are embedded in a cultural context that helps give meaning to the animals. A recurring concern is the function of anthropomorphism and the role it plays in how we value the animals in these books. I am particularly interested in how picture books depict various degrees of anthropomorphism, because it has the potential to challenge species boundaries and disrupt the human-animal dichotomy.
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