Author: Vanita Oelschlager
Illustrator: Mike Blanc
Publication Date: October 1, 2010
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Oh dear. If there is one trend in children's books that I found particularly vexing it's the awkward allegory. You know those books that pretend to be about a cute little animal but are really about some Very. Serious. Issue? They always think they're being so subtle, but they're not. The thing is, there are millions (literally millions) of excellent children's books by very good authors about cute little animals who talk and have adventures and are absolutely wonderful, and ALL of them are allegories. You know how I know? Because real animals don't talk and have adventures. Those aren't the ones I'm talking about. The ones I'm talking about are the ones in which the author (often a psychologist or a well-meaning educator, rather than a professional writer) wants to help children deal with An Important Issue or teach them A Valuable Lesson (capitalized because this is always the MOST important part of the book) and decides to do so with cute little animals because why not? Isn't that what children relate to? They won't even realize how much they're learning because the story is JUST SO MUCH FUN! Except it isn't. The books I'm talking about are so heavy-handed with their message and so sloppy with their writing that good storytelling is often abandoned and it's difficult to enjoy the story on its merits without feeling you're being lectured. I hate that there are so many examples of this.
In case you haven't guessed, I'm suggesting that Porcupette Finds a Family is such an example.
In the story, Porcupette, a baby porcupine, is left orphaned after her mother goes out for food one day and doesn't come back. She feels understandably distraught. She's still so young and needs a mother. Luckily she is adopted by a mother bear and treated as one of her cubs even though, of course, she is not. The description sounds heartwarming and, by all rights, it should have been. There are PLENTY of "animal adopted by another animal and feeling different and awkward but still loved" stories. There are even a few fantastic "porcupine feels bad about being so prickly and wonders if anyone will love him/her" books out there (if you haven't read Mr. Fine, Porcupine, do).
But where this one misses the mark is when Porcupette immediately starts questioning if her mother abandoned her because of something she had done wrong, if she was such an unlovable child that her mother left her on purpose. While this might indeed be something that foster children worry about (the book's obvious target audience) it makes a lot less sense coming from a porcupine. And it's kind of a downer. At several points in the book my three-year-old piped up with, "That's silly. Her mother didn't leave her. She's probably just dead!" Because OBVIOUSLY that is the most logical conclusion to a missing porcupine. Even my three-year-old knows that.
But Vanita Oelschlager isn't really telling a story about forest animals. She's telling a story about foster kids. The problem is that the allegory loses its power when it stops making sense as a good story. It has to work on both levels for it to work at all. And above all, good storytelling can not be abandoned.
I understand the power of literature in dealing with difficult situations, particularly in childhood. Believe me, I do. In my personal and professional life I have read thousands of children's books, and have had many occasions to rely on books specifically written about difficult situations. But the best ones must be, above all, good stories and well-written books. And that's especially true with the animal allegories. Because if Vanita Oelschlager wanted to write a book that dealt with the particulars of abandonment, foster care or adoption, she certainly could have done so using human characters talking about real situations. Instead she chose to write about porcupines. This suggests that the story holds up on its own, both as an animal story and as a story with a message. But this isn't Stellaluna or The Ugly Duckling or even Mr. Fine, Porcupine. Although her good intentions are obvious, this is not a book I would recommend.
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