With more children growing up in towns and cities, maybe the animal story has had its day. Do kids really want to read stories about fluffy animal friends and adventures in the big outdoors? Are the last bastions of wilderness really relevant to today’s children? And do children care?
It seems they really do care. When I visit schools as an author, I hear how concerned and aware they are about the state of the planet. I hear how genuinely worried they are about the disappearance of big species such as the tiger. I hear how appalled they are at the sight of oiled seabirds and marine life following huge oil spills. I’m glad children do care. The natural world is vital for providing us with the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. It gives us all the resources for our material wealth and the inspiration for our spiritual health. We are dependent upon the natural world for our survival. Yet, it is under threat as never before and we need to engage with children and empower them with knowledge so that they can make a difference.
I write stories about animals and people and the landscapes in which they live. My most recent book, Moon Bear, began as a seed of an idea after reading a newspaper article about the practice of bear bile farming South East Asia. It was one of the most difficult books I have written, because the subject matter is very dark. It concerns the bear bile trade in South East Asia, the cruel practice of keeping bears in small cages and the painful extraction of their bile for the Chinese medicine market. Bears spend the whole of their lives in fear, cooped up in small cages with nothing more than metal bars to rest upon. The bears suffer injury and disease. They cannot behave in any way that is innately ‘bear’. They live and die in these small cages.
So how do you write a story about that sort of cruelty? Do you write about it all? Children’s literature has always covered animal cruelty. Anna Sewell’s story Black Beauty described brutality to horses in the Victorian era. Dodie Smith created Cruella de Vil, the evil fur coat-wearing villain. But maybe there is something more raw and real about what is happening in the world right now, something that cannot be wrapped up in the safety blanket of the past or fantasy fiction. Is this sort of cruelty too horrific to write about? Should a children’s author include these disturbing topics at all?
Maybe I’m at risk of upsetting my readers? Well, the truth is, I want my readers to feel upset. I want them to feel angry at the injustice done to animals at the whim of people. What is the point in a story that does not make you feel any emotion at all? Although there is cruelty and injustice in my books, there is also hope, too, and the realisation that one voice, one individual, can make a real difference. Some of the inspiration for the story came from the work carried out by Animals Asia, a charity that educates and raises awareness of these important issues, leading to a shared and more powerful voice to influence governments and policy makers.
Moon Bear didn’t just become a story about bears, it also became one about people. It evolved into a story about animal rights and human rights and how our treatment of others is reflected in our treatment of animals. The research for the book brought together the strands of loss of habitat through deforestation, loss of wildlife, village clearances and the resulting loss of cultures and traditions. It highlighted how intricately we are all linked to the natural world.
So we shouldn’t shy away from telling children uncomfortable truths. I think children should know about issues affecting the natural world, such as the destruction of the oceans, the palm oil trade jeopardizing the rainforests and the killing and butchering of rhino for the wildlife trade. We need children to care deeply and passionately about these issues. We need them to know that they can make a difference and have their voices heard and we as adults need to join and support them. It is our duty and responsibility too.
Maybe we should remember and act upon the American Indian saying; “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but we borrow it from our children.”
Moon Bear by Gill Lewis is out now, published by OUP Children's Books.