- Reading Animals in Margaret Mahy’s Poems, Picture Books, and Stories for Younger Readers
“Mother, there is a lion in the meadow,” says a little boy in A Lion in the Meadow (1965, 7). His disbelieving mother replies that he is making up stories, “so I will make up a story, too” (9). Giving her son a matchbox, she tells him that in the matchbox is a tiny dragon. If the boy takes it to the meadow and opens it, the dragon will grow in size and chase the lion away. She is surprised when the boy and an actual “roaring, whiskery lion” rush inside to hide from a dragon that has taken over the meadow instead. The boy reproaches his mother, who says in defense: “it was just a story I made up.” “It turned out to be true after all,” he replies: “you should have looked in the matchbox first.” “That is how it is,” adds the lion: “Some stories are true, and some aren’t” (10). Having altered reality through their stories and meditated on the nature of truth and fiction, the mother and little boy now live with the new reality they have created. The boy and the lion (who eats “only apples”) become friends, the dragon is given the meadow, “and nobody minded.” But the mother “never ever made up a story again” (11).
A Lion in the Meadow, the story that launched Margaret Mahy internationally as a distinctive and powerful voice in children’s literature, encapsulates the themes and preoccupations of her distinguished career: the individuality and agency of the child; the child’s relation with family and society; and the power of story and the imagination. A Lion in the Meadow plays “with the borderlines between fantasy and reality and sometimes with those between the adult and the child,” as Peter Hunt puts it, in a story that honors the power of the child’s imagination, but also pays attention to the challenges and responsibilities of storytelling, for adults as well as for children (Children’s Literature 89). It does so, as many children’s books [End Page 186] do, through the use of animal characters to symbolize the power and scope of the child’s imagination, and the challenges of controlling the imaginary once it has entered into the real, domestic world. Ordinary life gives a little, to accommodate the intrusion of the extraordinary. “In Mahy’s fictive world, ordinariness is not a preferred plot outcome; rather, protagonists look to futures rich in imaginative possibilities,” comments Clare Bradford, and in A Lion in the Meadow that future involves living with story, incorporating its magic and vibrancy into everyday life (117). Mahy is attracted, as Lisa Scally notes, by the idea of “the imagination as that which produces reality” (132). As such, the lion and the dragon represent the imagination’s power, causing the wild to burst into the domestic, of story into the ‘real’ world, doing so in ways that celebrate both the extraordinary and the ordinary, as they connect with children’s and writers’ experience.
In this essay, I argue that in Mahy’s poems, stories, picture books, and other writing for children, the interrelation between the ordinary and the extraordinary is mapped in interactions between animals and humans. Through animals and the human characters who interact with them, she enables a discussion about the nature and limits of human experience and the workings of creativity, perception, and the imagination.
In so doing, she participates in a long tradition of using animals in children’s stories. “Animals in one form or another (from real to stuffed) have been a staple of children’s fantasy, generally caricaturing both human and animal features,” writes Peter Hunt (Children’s Literature 149). Critics generally agree that the association between children and animals proceeds from what Maria Nikolajeva sums up as the “Romantic belief in the child’s unity with nature that has contributed to the vast number of animal and nature stories for children” (55). Tess Cosslett, writing about Romantic-era didactic texts that use talking animal characters for instructive purposes, suggests that animal fantasy supports the view that if children are...