Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Should We Play With Crocodiles? By Pippa Goodhart


Does our risk-averse, Health And Safety aware, psychological damage sensitive culture allow, or even encourage, the inclusion of child murderers in books for very young children?   
Yes!  But should it?

I was happily writing a new picture book story called ‘Don’t Wake The Crocodile’ when my husband said,

“You can’t write a story about a crocodile who might eat children.  Real crocodiles DO eat real children, and it’s a terrible thing.”

Well of course it IS a terrible thing, and not something to be made light of.  And yet ….  I’m not the only one.  Is that any excuse? 

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Why are crocodiles such favourites in picture books for young children?  Is it the thrill of flirting with danger in a way that, for British children, at least, is a danger that seems safely at a distance; in the world of fiction rather than reality?  I wouldn’t contemplate writing a jolly story about children flirting with danger when crossing a busy road, for instance.  Might our child characters get run over?  That would be horrific to contemplate.  So am I wrong to play with dangers that are real in other parts of the world?  I genuinely don’t know.

I think that the smiley beady-eyed, teeth-on-display looks of a crocodile rather lend themselves to being turned into humans in an animal skin.  They are often made to look more goofy than scary.  In that form we can think of the crocodile as being a human bully in disguise, and read the story in those emotional terms.  To me, it’s that clear fictionalisation of a crocodile into something other than a real crocodile that excuses the use of one in this sort of story.  And yet my fictional crocodile lives in an African pool and does threaten to eat the children –


They played Who Can Gobble The Picnic, and it was lovely and cool in the Crocodile’s pool, and everyone was splashy-happy… until the bananas and pineapple and avocados and tangerines and ground nuts were all eaten, and Moses’ little sister said... 

 “I’m still hungry!”

“Mm,” said Crocodile.  “I’m still hungry too!  I just might like to gobble-up YOU!” 

I had thought that children would relish the frisson of scariness in that crocodile threat that the children then run safely away from.  The pictures would need to make clear that this is a game, and not real.  But have I got this wrong?  I really do want to know, so please share your own thoughts on this. 

15 comments:

  1. Interesting post! Crocodiles might be extra fascinating in books & stories because they can look - especially in illustrated versions - a little like dragons and therefore echo that image and fears. They are also capable of disguise AND surprise action, which dinosaurs seem too lumbering to do, story-wise. Crocodiles also look such great fun to draw!

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    1. I'm sure that you're right, Penny, and that crocodiles stand for a dangerous creature that can appear in many forms in traditional tales throughout time and around the world. Hmm, now I'm wondering about a story that might bring ALL those dangerous dragons and crocodiles and monsters of all sorts together!

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  2. Declaring myself pro-crocodiles in picture books. All that snapping is great fun as long as it clearly isn't real. But then again, I did write three picture books featuring a great white shark.

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    1. But Gilbert has such a lovely smile ... which just adds to the thrill, Jane!

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  3. I don't think it's a problem at all, Pippa. Yes, crocodiles are a danger in real life - and isn't that part of the reason why they're so successful in stories? They are a representation of real dangers, but in this case one that is happily very removed from most readers, and so can be explored without giving nightmares. They can be rendered silly by illustration and conquered by story. Nobody has yet asked me to avoid using theoretically dangerous animals in text, thank goodness (though it wouldn't surprise me. I've just been asked to sign a contract for a major publisher which specifies no dragons, fairies or witches are to be used - since these 'were never real' UFOs were specifically mentioned as ok, though.)

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    1. Yes, it's the distance from children's real lives that makes a crocodile danger safe to scare yourself with in this country, but my worry is that I'm writing a story set in a place where the crocodile threat is very real. Could clever illustration to make it all very clearly fictional get over that problem?
      Your list of forbidden subjects suggests some American book taboos. I've had a list that included no naked udders! And no dinosaurs without humans also being present because to suggest that dinosaurs came before humans can upset some fundamental Christians. I don't think we're ever all going to agree on what should, or shouldn't, go into children's books!

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  4. Hmm, interesting post, Pippa. I can confirm that crocodiles are indeed great fun to draw ;-)
    I was going to say that the species specific nature of any animal we choose to write a story about is pretty much negated the moment we give it emotions, a personality and the ability to communicate and reason in an abstract way. But I realised that this is not universally true. In the folk tales of the countries in which they live, I bet there are tales featuring crocodiles which exhibit accurate crocodile-ness as well as human traits. Much like our tales featuring Wolves, they once ate 'our' children.
    I say go for it and don't worry. A crocodile is as much a symbol for any unpleasant thing that could happen as it is a real croc.
    Also Hippos kill more people per year than crocs (I read somewhere reliable once) though they don't eat them. . . We are happy writing about them. And about humans, they are pretty nasty. . We kill crocodiles, remember 'the bad guy' in that Tomi Ungerer book about the bird/toothbrush called Pete (can't remember the name of the book)
    says "Tomorrow, that crocodile becomes a suitcase!" Love that book ;-)

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  5. Lots of food for thought in your reply, Jonathan! Yes, giving an animal human emotions and a human voice makes it clearly not the real thing ... and possibly even more sinister. Interesting point about wolves in our own culture.
    The only killing of humans hippos have done as far as I know, is to kill off James' parents in the first paragraph of Dahl's James And The Giant Peach. And that was in broad daylight in a busy street, so watch out!
    And, yes, absolutely, it's us humans who are probably the nastiest of all creatures. But we don't tend to let the mad gunmen lose in our picture books!

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  6. Yes, we are probably far more of a threat to a croc than the other way round. The vilification of wolves is definitely an issue, and probably has serious issues for wildlife conservation. Wolves are barely a threat to humans (modern wolves have evolved to be very shy of humans, which is why they have survived) but where they do exist in the wild, they have a positive effect on the ecosystem - they keep herbivore numbers under control, and then more trees survive, and more species that depend on the trees... The 'big bad wolf' image makes it possible for people to see these beautiful and fascinating animals as vermin and feel OK about exterminating them.

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  7. All good and interesting points, Lesley, and ones which we ought to teach our children. But stories NEED baddies, so where are we to find them if we mustn't vilify real creatures? Do we just use imaginary monsters? Monsters in picture books have become decidedly fluffy and cute in recent years; goofy rather than scary. Perhaps we need to invent new sorts of baddies .... she says, glancing across at the piano and realising how like a mouth full teeth that key board is!!

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  8. Pippa, check out I REALLY WANT TO EAT A CHILD by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothee De Monfreid. A fabulously funny book about fussy eating. We love it in our house! In terms of your question: yes, children love a bit of scariness in stories - if they can't explore danger and their feelings in the safety of stories (and pretend play), then where?

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  9. Exactly! Scariness exists, and actually is necessary to survival, and it can be explored and to some degree conquered if its handled in a safe fun form. I don't have any problem at all with goofy silly crocodiles, it's just the question of whether my story set in Africa would be nudging too close to the real dangers....?
    And, yes, I know and love I Really Want To Eat A Child. I think I discovered it via a blog that you wrote.

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  10. Good points and how thought provoking. And how do the marginalised alligators feel about all this?!

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    1. Good point! There's a story in that!

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    2. Your post was Gharial-ist by exclusion!

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