Animality and Children’s Lit & Film


The reliance on animals in children’s literature over the past two centuries has become a key  means by which the civilizing process that children go through has been mediated by the animal body. Children are asked both implicitly and explicitly to identify with animals, but then to position themselves as distinctly human through the mode of their interactions with both lived animals and those depicted in literature and film. This core question of identity formation – child/adult, animal/human – forms the foundation of my research, which investigates the overlapping, double-sided rhetorics addressing children, childhood and animals. My study is organized into five areas of interest that pose complementary questions regarding the way in which relationships between animals and children inform and underscore adults’ lived relationships with both of them.

Posthumanist scholarship, then, becomes a key means by which to de-prioritize a conception of an exclusively human subjectivity. Cary Wolfe in particular has recently worked to criticize liberal humanism and find ways to push cultural analysis beyond its inherent anthropocentrism in order to combat institutionalized speciesism, which continues to prioritize human beings, thereby excusing the exploitation or extermination of other species. What has been notably overlooked in posthumanism’s challenge to anthropocentric human liberalism, however, is how the human is encultured through literature geared specifically towards a child audience. By examining culturally significant and widely popular works of children’s culture through a posthumanist, or animality studies lens, I argue that Western philosophy’s objective to establish a notion of an exclusively human subjectivity is continually countered in the very texts that ostensibly work to configure human identity. Literature geared toward a child audience reflects and contributes to the cultural tensions created by the oscillation between upholding and undermining the divisions between the human and the animal. My monograph focuses on the ways in which these works present the boundary between humans and animals as, at best, permeable and in a state of continual flux.


My first chapter examines some of the surprisingly inter-related roots of the animal rights  movement and the children’s rights movement during the nineteenth century. Children’s rights in fact arose as a development of animal rights and, as I argue, this co-reliance reflects the way in which the cultural conflation of children and nonhuman animals fulfilled certain demands that the industrializing adult placed on both. While the main focus of this chapter is on “equine” texts, an analysis of Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories Designed for the Instruction of Children,  respecting their Treatment of Animals (1786) provides crucial historical context. Trimmer is one of the earliest writers using anthropomorphized animals to impart moral instruction to children. As Tess Cosslett notes, “Trimmer uses the device partly in order to amuse her readers, but also as a way of educating them into sympathy with animal’s-eye views” (5). Thus, children are encouraged to empathize with animals in order to reaffirm their humanity. This empathy is expanded upon in the anonymously written Memoirs of Dick the Little Pony, Supposed to be Written by Himself (1799) and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), both written from the equine’s point of view. There are startling similarities between Dick the Little Pony and Black Beauty, with both central characters moving from their idyllic pastoral birthplaces to the confusion and cruelty of an urban setting. During this time period in Britain, an increasing number of livestock were no longer confined to farms, instead populating cities as both transportation and physical labour. Sewell especially is nostalgic for the countryside and agrarian lifestyle, writing at a time when industrial manufacturing was becoming increasingly important to British economic success. Similarly, National Velvet (1935) presents a particular challenge to this notion of horses as economically necessary. As horses began to be replaced by automobiles on city streets, they began to be considered luxury items, akin to oversized pets. Enid Bagnold’s novel, written just as this transition was beginning, reframes the service of horses as largely emotional labour. As these texts suggest, during the nineteenth century, horses became the body marking humans’ own tension and unease with swift and monumental economic and industrial transition, resulting in the animals’ placement at the forefront of the animal rights movement.

My second chapter addresses more specifically the way in which the animal body has been used to signify human values. One recognizes, for example, the nobility of horses, the loyalty of dogs, and the pacificity of cattle. This adaptation of the animal body became common and unquestioned in children’s works, but the implications of such attributions for adult conceptions of species’  relations has yet to be thoroughly addressed, especially when it comes to the wild animal, particularly in texts that conflate concepts of wild and domestic into one animal body, such as Buck in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) and its multiple twenty-first century film adaptations (2000, 2003, 2009). Similarly, Hiyao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke suggests that “the relationships between animals are bound up with the relations between man and animal, man and woman, man and child, man and the elements, man and the physical and microphysical universe” (Deleuze and Guattari 235). In this chapter, I build on my earlier discussion of the cultural conception of the domestic animal as a means by which the young were inducted into a culture of labour and suffering. Particularly important to understanding the politics behind these binary oppositions is London’s own vision of interspecies friendship. In questioning the perceived boundaries between humans and animals, scholars such as Donna Haraway and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari reconceptualize humans and animals as phenomena beyond ideology, presenting a challenge to the hegemonic structures of imperialism that had become central to humanist exploits of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By conducting an animality studies reading of Jack London’s novels The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1905), I am able to focus on issues of wilderness and civilization, as London himself does, in order to demonstrate how assumptions regarding wild/civilized distinctions function not only to erase the agency of other species, but also to undermine the potential for cross-species identification.

Extrapolating on the identity politics arising from my consideration of human-animal relations in my previous chapters, my third chapter engages with conflicts arising from the rhetorically sympathetic fusion of children not only to other animals but also to the broader natural environment. My analysis reveals a higher degree of ambivalence underwriting the discourses around the consumption of animals. Accounting for the animal, in texts such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1948) and the films Babe (1995) and Chicken Run (2000). As my study reveals, White in particular held a deeper ambivalence regarding the modern culture of animal consumption than is normally assumed. An analysis of the novel that accounts for Wilbur as an actual non-human animal – instead of as a representative of the concept of the human child, as has most often been done to date – calls into question the naturalization of what Derrida refers to as the “noncriminal putting to death” of the animal for human consumption (“Eating Well” 112). Disguising the act of killing an animal to consume its meat naturalizes this activity, enabling animal consumption by humans on a mass scale. Accounting for the ethical implications involved in acknowledging the subjectivity of the meat animal by necessity must implicate not just exceptional individual animals, but entire species. As I will argue, these texts brush against, but ultimately retreat from unravelling the logic of what Derrida (1991) refers to as a “carnophallogocentric” paradigm (p. 113).

In Chapter Four, I examine animal politics within the context of technological posthumanism, as presented in Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), its filmic adaptation The Secret of NIMH (1982), and William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat (1976). Situating my analysis in the historical context of the debates about animal experimentation, I reveal a larger cultural ambivalence regarding the centrality of technological progress in Western notions of value. In these laboratory-based texts, the borders between human and animal are permeable and, moreover, are in continual flux, as we continue to use animals as experimental subjects. Building on Derrida’s arguments, I investigate the disturbances arising within the laboratory context, and how this experience is addressed in children’s culture. In this formulation, the use of animals as experimental subjects brings forward the fact that the borders between human and animal are permeable and far from stable. In my analysis, I aim to push the boundaries of what “subjectivity” itself means in science fiction geared towards a younger audience, as well as in the framework of Western culture more generally. Emphasizing the notion of the collective in identity-formation, the novel in particular can be seen as addressing the way in which children’s texts over the past 200 years often sacrifice the subjectivity of an entire species in their efforts to establish the individualism of a singular animal with which the young reader can identify.

My fifth and final chapter focuses on two films promoting legal personhood rights for whales. My analysis of Free Willy (1993) and Dolphin Tale (2011) focuses on the cetacean rights movement’s proposal of a fundamental subjectivity and freedom from exploitation for all whales. The two films are predicated on the fresh assessment of child/marine mammal affections and identification. Each also, in different ways, addresses the issue of captivity in the context of cetacean identity formation in order to call attention to the need for legal acknowledgement of the personhood of whales. My previous chapter on the NIMH texts addresses animal subjectivity in the context of the aptitude for human language. This chapter builds on that argument, investigating more fully the centrality of language in self-identification, as well as Giorgio Agamben’s use of zoe and bios as a site of conflict between constructs of nature and culture. Situating the topic of child/animal relations against the backdrop of family disruption, this chapter uses the overlaps between the films and the actual lives of their animal stars to argue for a conception of non-human identity that, rather than being defined as purely animal, must be recognized as existing outside such binary logic, a gesture that does not simply humanize animals but disturbs the notion of the human itself.