A child who reads heavily may well be under the impression that the acquisition of pets requires about as much thought as a well-chosen piece of jewellery.
Yesterday I rewatched Bridge To Terabithia — a perennial favourite at our house. I can’t remember if this also happens in the book version, but at the end of the movie Leslie’s father says he was going to gift Leslie’s dog to Jesse but couldn’t quite part with it.
Today I read Madeline in London, in which the girls visit Pepito at his new home and decide to give him the gift of a retired horse.
Children’s literature is full of stories about boys who save up enough money to buy a dog. The real cost of dog ownership — the food, the registration, the annual vaccinations, the worming and flea treatments — are never factored into the cost.
There’s a reason for this, of course.
Children’s books are not set in the real world. They exist on a continuum between utopia and real — and if it’s set in a realistic world (or, lately, a hyper-realistic one) it’s probably young adult literature. As for middle grade novels and chapter books, these are largely privileged worlds in which there is always enough to eat, always a place to come home to and populated by adults who basically care for children.
These are also worlds in which any child who really wants an animal companion can have one. They will roam free and look after one another.
As long as the child saves enough money to buy the pet in the first place, subsequent costs are magically met, even in the poorest households.
I point out the obvious because a disappointing number of adults buy pets without factoring in the enormous cost of pets. My mother, who worked at the SPCA for some years, was constantly dealing with members of the public who approached the charity for help paying medical bills for sick pets, because they hadn’t planned ahead. These adults are still living in a children’s literature utopia.
Perhaps we need a few more narratives about the realities of pet adoption. One excellent example is The Stray by Molly Ruttan. A family finds a grubby sort of creature of indeterminate species and because it doesn’t have a collar they decide to take it home and make it part of the family. Not another one of these books, I thought. But this was not a happily-ever-after adoption story; it turnjed out to be more of an E.T. story. Grub is not happy with his new ‘family”. The family recognises his unhappiness and only now go out of their way to look for Grub’s own family. (They haven’t extended empathy to the unseen parents of Grub, who will be worried out of their minds.) An alien ship arrives and Grub happily goes back to his own family.
A story such as Grub is ostensibly about a pet (in the body of an alien), but at its heart, is about adoption. Adoption stories can be super problematic when treated lightly and unthinkingly in children’s literature. As a negative example I offer up Gaston.
One of the more emotionally honest kids’ books I’ve seen about wanting a pet real bad is The Pigeon Wants A Puppy! by Mo Willems.
While the unthinking acquisition of pets are generally considered great in stories for children, when it happens in a story for adults we get an uneasy feeling. In the 2014 film Wildlike, an uncle suggests to his niece that they buy a dog together. This foreshadows abuse.