On anglerfish, scrub jays, and the menageries of childhood

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The anglerfish was the iconic animal of my childhood. This eerie creature lives miles under the ocean’s surface and – as you probably know, if you were ever an animal-obsessed kid like me – dangles a fleshy, glow-in-the dark “bait” in front of its monstrous jaws. The dangling bait attracts prey and gives the animal its name. I remember returning to one book illustration of the fish with its jaws agape to reveal deadly sharp teeth over and over again. The anglerfish somehow captured everything mysterious, fascinating, and awesome about the natural world for me.

I hadn’t thought about the anglerfish until very recently, when I had a child of my own and became re-acquainted with the animals of childhood. It’s shocking how much of kids’ literature focuses on animals that are actually quite remote to our lives. Lions, bears, elephants and giraffes feature prominently, as do monkeys, sharks, whales and other exotic animals. Admittedly, these animals are rad, and totally deserve the attention. But most of us will never see them, except possibly in zoos. Sadly, I have never seen a real live anglerfish – not even in an aquarium.

Of course, there are lots of kids’ books whose main characters are familiar friends: dogs, rabbits, ducks, mice, and (one of my childhood favorites) badgers. But where are the equally popular children’s books series based on heroic squirrels, crafty jays and sly skunks? I’d love to hear about them; those are the most common non-domesticated creatures I see in my urban home.

The stories we’re told in childhood have enormous power to shape our view of the world. Part of the reason we think that lions and whales are awesome is because we’re told of their truly astounding abilities from babyhood: it’s fairly common knowledge that whales eat plankton and have baleen instead of teeth, and that lions live in family groups called prides. But how many of us – apart from, perhaps, the corvid-friendly authors and readers of this blog – know what scrub jays eat, or how they raise their young?

Scrub jays, too, have awesome abilities; they are among the few non-human animals, for example, that might possess what scientists call a “theory of mind” – the ability to imagine what other animals are thinking, and to plan their own actions accordingly. But I don’t know of any kids’ books about the brainy scrub jay. And that’s a shame; if more of us knew how truly amazing the denizens of our own backyards are, we’d probably be more likely to try to preserve them and their habitats.

The local food movement has given us a renewed appreciation for our environment by encouraging us to pay more attention to what’s on our dinner tables, where it came from, and how it got there. It’s time for a local fauna movement as well: a greater focus on the animals that live in our backyards and their connections to us.

The city where I live has wonderful resources that help kids (and everyone else) learn about the amazing creatures nearby, but I would love to see more. I would rather buy my son a stuffed animal or a book modeled on the scrub jay than one based on Elmo or Thomas the Tank Engine. Do these already exist? And are any enterprising science writers or illustrators eager to take on such projects? And – most important – what were they iconic animals of your own childhood?

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Images: Truly incredible deep sea anglerfish mask from Helder da Rocha/flickr. Grumpy western scrub jay from Vicki & Chuck Rogers/flickr.

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8 thoughts on “On anglerfish, scrub jays, and the menageries of childhood

  1. Wild animals, not farm? Foxes, probably; but there’s a wonderful book, Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes already, though maybe that doesn’t qualify because the foxes are entirely anthropomorphic, if that’s the word I want. Groundhogs? hawks? night herons?

  2. For me, childhood delight was all about pigs and their porcine kin–warthogs especially. And I wish I had known then what I know now about peccaries. I’m just as glad we don’t have any in the backyard, though…

  3. Of the animals in books I was a horse and pig nut, and of course, dinosaurs.

    But when I think of the real animals I encountered thanks to a pair of hunting house cats and a biologist mother, it’s moles, voles, and chipmunks lined up on the front step, and the bat that notoriously ended up in our refrigerator.

  4. The animals in books of my childhood were wombats, koalas and turtles, but then I grew up in Australia (where I still live).

  5. Oh, I forgot Dot the Kangaroo and the Banksia Men (but they were plants). Indeed, in “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” (an Australian classic) there were pretty much every animal (and a lot of plants) from the Australian bush.

  6. Ellen thanks for that link – we actually have the grouse doll 🙂 And Peter thanks for reminding me that one kid’s exotic animal is another’s backyard friend.

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