Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review: Animal Land

Title: Animal Land

Author: Margaret Blount

Illustrations: black-and-white reprints

Publisher: William Morrow

Date: 1975

Length: 336 pages

Quote: “Animal Farm has been called a satire on dictatorship, but it is a chronicle of the sad sameness of human nature and the ultimate absorption of every revolutionary movement.”

Despite the subtitle, “The Creatures of Children's Fiction,” Blount has read a lot of nonfiction and books written for adults, too. Probably more for enjoyment than merely for the purposes of comparing and discussing the children's stories this book is supposed to be about. In addition to Animal Farm (which I read and liked at fourteen) there are discussions of Perelandra and That Hideous Strength (which determined high school students can read, and I did, but I appreciated them better in college) and The Once and Future King and The Canterbury Tales and Archy and Mehitabel and Of Other Worlds and Children's Books of Yesterday and T.H. White's Bestiary and so on.

Animal Land, itself, is aimed at educated adult readers and most likely to be enjoyed by writers, teachers, or librarians...but I can imagine a bright twelve-year-old, who wants to make sure s/he hasn't missed any really good reads, spending a few hours with this book before looking for all the other books discussed in it.

The publisher seems to have encouraged this since, instead of a blurb, the back jacket merely lists some of the Books and some of the Animals discussed in Animal Land: The Wind in the Willows, Dr. Dolittle, Aesop's Fables, Puss in Boots, Just So Stories, Pinocchio, Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland, The Box of Delights, Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little (has anyone besides Blount noticed what a weird, disturbing story that is, by the standards of children's fiction?), The Hobbit, Poo Poo and the Dragons, the apparently exclusively British adventures of Rupert Bear, Black Beauty, The Velveteen Rabbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, Johnny Crow's Garden, The Jungle Book, Babar the Elephant, Uncle Remus, Bambi, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. And more.

The child who hasn't met all of these fictional creatures will want to meet the others, but may benefit from a warning that (a) some of them have never been distributed in the U.S., and (b) the author's reading list includes anything likely to be read by a "child" between the ages of three and thirty.

The adult reader may find Animal Land useful as a reminder that children don't actually live, read, learn, think, or grow up in “age groups.” Blount helps adults remember this by withholding judgment about the age at which any child is likely to enjoy any book. Perhaps, if the adult reader was lucky enough to read most of these books, the adult reader's memories may help. I remember finding Babar babyish at age six, although I knew older people (mercifully not my parents) to whom Babar had great nostalgic appeal, such that they still enjoyed reading his adventures. Perhaps because children who aren't segregated by gender seem to want to define and separate themselves by gender, I didn't properly appreciate Ernest Thompson Seton's animal stories before age thirty. (My brother liked them, even better than Kipling's, in middle school.) I found Chanticleer in a cousin's twelfth grade literature book and wanted to go back to those relatives' house to read all of his adventure when I was six, but I didn't really get into the rest of The Canterbury Tales even in college.

Animal Land is most warmly recommended to adults who can spend a few pleasant afternoons reminiscing along with Blount, then decide which old favorite they want to revisit, first, in the company of which children. Teenagers? No need to wait until you have nieces or nephews to read to; if you're planning to become a teacher, most of the books discussed in Animal Land, if available in your country, will be on your college reading list.

I recommend not passing up any opportunity to visit Johnny Crow's Garden, a babyish place I'll admit, but one every adult should have visited once. If you don't like Babar, Blount tells enough about his adventures that you can probably answer the questions on the test after reading Animal Land. If you didn't have the complete set of Beatrix Potter's little books as a child, I recommend splurging on the complete one-volume edition now.

What's not to love? Readers might want to add a chapter or two to Animal Land, discussing recent and U.S.-specific animal stories: The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs and Watership Down, Lad a Dog (and others by Albert Payson Terhune), the Outcasts of Redwall, the Hogwarts owls, The Cricket in Times Square, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, Rascal, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the many adventures of Freddy the Pig, and Freddy's creator's less literary but more TV-friendly “Mr. Ed,” seem worthy of as much attention as several animals and stories mentioned in Animal Land. It's possible that Lassie and Thomasina were deliberately omitted for reasons that seemed good and sufficient to Blount, but readers might disagree. 

Margaret Blount wrote a few other books besides Animal Land, apparently all novels. No contact information, no date of death, and no verification that she's alive, shows up on Google. In the absence of contact information I can't claim to offer Animal Land as a Fair Trade Book, although it deserves to be one. And it's moving quickly into the collector price range: $10 per book + the usual $5 per package is the best price I can offer for a clean non-library copy...and I can't even guarantee that more than one book can be tucked into the same package. To buy it here, send payment to either address at the bottom of the screen.