By Mickey Kudia
It is common for children’s books to use farm animals as protagonists. Sometimes these books fall into the genre of fantasy, as Charlotte’s Web does, and other times these characters are portrayed more realistically, such as in Black Beauty. I’ve noticed that most of the children’s books that feature farm animals seem to do so because it is entertaining for the children who read them, which is perfectly understandable.
However, I think many of these books miss an opportunity to teach young people about compassion for these animals, and can even misguide them about the realities of life for animals on modern factory farms. In this blog, I’ll share things I take into consideration when choosing a book about farm animals to share with students.
Will it engage students?
There have been numerous times when I was excited about reading a new book during a read-aloud, but as I continued to read the book, I kept losing students’ interest and had to rely on other tricks to keep them engaged. Or I had to rush through the book because there was no way I was going to be able to keep their attention. Knowing whether a book will be a hit with students can require some trial-and-error, but there are a couple of factors I look for in books about farm animals that seem to keep young people engaged.
The first thing I think about is whether the students will be able to understand the story, because if students do not know what is going on, they are going to lose interest. Also, if I have to continually stop and explain things in a story, it will ruin the flow of the book. I work in Chicago, and most of the young people I see have never met a cow, pig, or chicken; they have not put much thought into how animal products get to their table. For that reason, I try to put myself in their heads, and I consider whether someone with very little knowledge about the topic and whose intellect is still developing would be able to understand the book.
The other thing I think about is whether the students will find the book interesting. There can be many reasons why students find a book interesting (e.g., rhyming, illustrations, humor, etc.), but I have had the most success with books that tell the story of an individual farm animal and that animal’s experience. The best authors are able to help us connect with the protagonist in the story and be curious about what is going to happen to them. When reading some of my favorite books aloud, I have had students get frustrated with me for asking questions during a story because they want to know what happens next, and do not want to spend time discussing parts of the book.
What are the explicit and implicit messages?
The next thing I think about is what messages, both explicit and implicit, the book sends to children about farm animals. An explicit message, which is obvious and often clearly stated, is exemplified in the book All Pigs Are Beautiful; it is difficult to miss the explicit message that “all pigs are beautiful.”
Implicit messages are less obvious, and often require us to question what is included and what is not. For example, many books show farm animals who are happy and living outdoors with plenty of room to move around. There is nothing wrong with a story like this, but when students see this depiction over and over again, it sends the implicit message that most, if not all, farm animals live this way. This is sadly not the case, as most animals who are raised for food live on factory farms. If this implicit message is never questioned, students will grow into adults who will continue to believe that most farm animals live in idyllic conditions.
Other common implicit messages I’ve seen in children’s books are connected to farm animals’ intelligence and temperament. For example, many books I’ve read with characters who are chickens and turkeys will depict them as unintelligent or as “bird brains” when in fact, birds are intelligent animals who are often just misunderstood.
I also think it is important to consider implicit messages about humans in these books. Many stories feature a farmer who is white, male, impoverished, and elderly. This also sends an implicit message about the race, gender, class, and age of people in this profession. There is nothing wrong with having a character who fits this description, but when young people read books with characters like this over and over again, it sends an implicit message about farmers.
How truthful is the information?
Lastly, I think about the truthfulness of the information in the story. This has always been a challenge for me. I want students to know about the realities of modern farming, but some of the details about how animals are treated can be horrific, and I do not want students to feel distressed. Finding books with this balance can be difficult, and it will depend on your specific group of students.
In my experience, educators are often so worried about upsetting students that they will not teach about the realities on factory farms at all. I understand this concern, but I think it is problematic. Students need to have accurate information so that they can make informed choices, especially as they grow older. And if this topic is not taught to students, they will often continue to believe that most farms are like the ones they see in books and cartoons that show the animals living in idyllic conditions.
One book that I like to use is Hope by Randy Houk. It is the true story of a pig who was rescued from a factory farm and brought to live at Farm Sanctuary. When I first read the book, I was worried that students would not enjoy it, or that it would be too sad. To my surprise, students were fascinated by the story, and I have had many spirited conversations with students after reading the book.
However, I understand that teaching about factory farming is not an option for many educators. In that case, I would recommend books that have truthful information about the characteristics of farm animals. There are many books that demonstrate how farm animals care for their young, experience a range of emotions, and develop relationships with people and other animals. These books can help young people to see farm animals as individuals and can correct misinformation about the animals’ intelligence and demeanor.
For more children’s books about factory farming and other important animal issues, check out these suggestions on HEART’s website.
Thank you for reading this article. I am always looking for new books about farm animals, and I am sure there are other educators who are looking for them as well. So, if you know of any good books on this topic, I encourage you to leave a comment with any books that you would recommend!