“Now Ananzi, him teeny teeny. But him smart. How else he have all stories named for him? You see, Ananzi own all stories. When your mother tell you a story, or your grandfather tell you a story, them borrow Ananzi’s story. All stories belong to Ananzi.”
–Rabbit Ears production of Ananzi the Spider, read by Denzel Washington
We all know that children love to hear a story read aloud. A book read by a mother or a father is a special treasure. A story produced by Rabbit Ears is another! If you haven’t heard of these audiobooks, get your hands on them right away. You can order sets from Amazon or purchase individual tales from ITunes. Rabbit Ears features fables, folk, and fairytales from around the world, read by some of our best actors, including Jack Nicholson (with accompaniment by Bobbi McFerrin), William Hurt, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Denzel Washington, and others. My children laughed uproariously at the antics of the tricky jackal in The Tiger and the Brahmin (read by Ben Kingsley), and thrilled with fear at the fate of Rip Van Winkle (as related by Angelica Huston). Rabbit Ears is a rich anthology of children’s tales from Africa to the Catskills presented with true joy. We can learn much about the nature of children’s literature from this collection of audiobooks, which are to me a text of their own, like the compiled stories of the Brothers Grimm, or the patchwork quilt of the fabulous Hans Christian Anderson.
While listening to some of these stories recently, I kept an ear out for the use of animal characters. I found that they fell roughly into four categories.
1. Animals demonstrate origins of things, as in the Just So stories (How the Camel Got His Hump, and How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin); Biblical stories (Noah’s Ark), and fables (how Ananzi came to own all stories).
2. Anthropomorphic animals that demonstrate human behaviors, but, by being animals, allow us to examine them from a distanced perspective. Think of the “naughty” dealings of Peter Rabbit, the swashbuckling of Puss in Booths, and the wit-under-pressure of Br’er Rabbit.
Animals serve as symbols and analogies in The Bremen Town Musicians, The Emperor and the Nightingale, and The Peach Boy.
Animals that operate as helpers and witnesses as in The Tailor of Gloucester and Ivan and the Firebird.
”All that I have to say in books, all that I ever have to say, is that I love the world.”
I am most interested in the way animals serve as symbols and analogies.
The two great lessons of children’s literature are that life is wonderful, and death is natural. Children’s books teach us about, and prepare us for, both life and death, turning these truths into beautiful things. We are calmed and nurtured by children’s books because they speak gently and softly on the topic of death, and with wondering joy about life. Not surprisingly, storytellers turn to the natural world for subjects that demonstrate the intrinsic value of life and that it is natural, though sad, to let go of life.
Sometimes, the death in children’s books is simply the death of childhood. Think of how Wendy, at the end of Peter Pan, reflects on her adventures in Neverland while embracing her children. In order to have those children, she had to leave childhood behind. Though her life goes on with pleasures unique to the world of adults, she continues to mourn Peter’s forever-childhood by leaving the window open for him at night.
As for the worth of life, we need look no further than Charlotte’s Web. Remember our joy when Wilbur is saved with words, and our sadness when Charlotte, her time gone, quietly dies. Though we cry, we are comforted by the fact that her life had meaning, in the shape of a “Terrific” pig, and that her death is part of a cyclical order, as lovely as the birth of children, and as majestic as the Ferris Wheel Fern rides at the fair, the wheel that constantly turns over.
Rabbit Ears presents The Bremen Town Musicians, a story of four farm animals who have outlived their usefulness. The donkey is aged and lame; the cat is no longer fit to be a mouser; the dog is slow and blue; and the rooster is better to eat than to crow about. These animals, aware that their owners plan to cut their lives short, become a traveling band, whose bluesy-sad music lands them work on a gondola in Venice. The donkey’s voice, we are told, falls somewhere “between a snare drum and a saxophone,” the cat takes the part of the violin with a voice “like a rusted hinge,” the rooster, a trained singer, crows “like a bagpipe,” and the dog sings bass. They sing in “perfect harmony” to the end of their days. They may not be the greatest musicians, but, like the story of the cricket singing in Times Square, the sounds they make remind us that animals have an intrinsic worth, along with all life on earth.
Another classic story told by Rabbit Ears, The Emperor and the Nightingale features a nightingale with a voice so beautiful the emperor orders her captured to sing for him and his court. But when the court musician creates a mechanical bird that sings more consistently than she, the emperor orders her banished from the kingdom. On the emperor’s deathbed, however, the mechanical bird breaks. He prays for song, and the nightingale comes back to comfort him the way only a living creature can: “She sang of the peaceful graveyard, where the white roses bloomed, where the air is sweet with the scent of the elder tree, where the green grass is moistened with the tears of those who grieve.” The emperor is revived by her song, and asks that she stay by his side forever. But the nightingale wants to come and go as she pleases, and to be free. “And so the nightingale sang freely, for fisherman and kitchen-maid and emperor alike.” Don’t life’s purest pleasures come to all of us, no matter what our station? And doesn’t a song, or a story, reconcile us to the idea of death, by making it beautiful too?
Whether regal or silly or a little of both, animals, with the short and simple lives, tether children’s literature to the wonders of life and death. Find in the Rabbit Ears treasury a wealth of animal tales that teach us all we ever needed to know.
–Tell me about your favorite fairytale. Did any one stick with you more than the others? (My daughter listened to The Boy Who Drew Cats, by Rabbit Ears, as a child, and has never forgotten it, though she’s grown now! She’s a writer, and the Japanese story about a poor village boy who can’t stop drawing cats–despite the consequences!–affirms the worth of artistic endeavor.)
–Let me know if you listen to Rabbit Ears and tell me what you think!
Here is a list of just some of the Rabbit Ears stories available (I listened to these this week, to refresh my heart on the meaning of children’s books):
–Just So stories
–Br’er Rabbit and Boss Lion
–East of the Sun, West of the Moon
–The Fisherman and His Wife
–The Five Chinese Brothers
–Jack and the Beanstalk
–Koi and the Kola Nuts
–The Monkey People
–Legend of Sleepy Hollow
–Puss in Boots
–The Three Billy Goats Gruff
–The Ugly Duckling
–The White Cat
No comments have been added yet.