When children’s literature fails to tell the full story

Yesterday I turned on BBC news and caught the tail end of a segment about dancing bears. My first instinct was to change the channel as quickly as possible. Like many people I am sensitive to animal suffering and I normally have to call on my courage to read or see such stories. However, before I managed to find the remote control I heard the voice of Dr Amir Khalil. His voice sounded kind, authoritative and positive so I sat down and forced myself to watch. And, I am glad I did. Dr Amir Khalil is a veterinarian with the charity Four Paws and he spoke about establishing bear sanctuaries in Bulgaria. It is a good reminder that animal cruelty can end.

The Dancing Bear by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Christian Birmingham
Published by Harper Collins

After the very short film (less than 4 minutes) I turned to my bookcase and started to read The Dancing Bear. It is a book I often recommend to Grade 3 – 5 because it is part of the Collins Young Lions and it labelled red for “longer satisfying stories – ideal for confident young readers.” And, as it is written by Morpurgo I considered it a solid recommendation.

It is the story of a little orphan girl called Roxanne who finds a bear cub. She begs her miserly grandfather to keep him and only when he is persuaded he will make money from the bear does he agree. Roxanne bonds with the bear and calls him Bruno. When Bruno ‘swiped playfully’ at a small boy the villagers demand he is sent to a zoo but Roxanne ‘spoke as though her life depended on it‘:
“I’ll look after him,” she pleaded. “Honest, I will. We could build a proper cage somewhere. And he won’t hurt anyone ever again, I promise.”

The cage is built in the village square and Roxanne’s grandfather put up a notice:

European Bear
Help Save Threatened Species
Donations in the box please.

The bear draws attention from a film crew who ask if they can shoot a music video featuring the famous singer ‘Niki’. Niki wants a dancing bear in his video and asks if Bruno can dance.

“Oh, he’ll dance all right,” said Roxanne’s grandfather, rubbing his hands. “That bear can do anything you ask, can’t he, Roxanne?”
Roxanne said nothing. She didn’t need to. The anger in her eyes said it all.

The story then takes a turn as the video is a remake of the Pied Piper and all the villagers want a part. Roxanne does indeed get Bruno to dance in the video as she turns out to be a very good singer and Bruno can’t resist doing a little jig when she sings. All the villagers and the film crew are pleased and Niki is so pleased he whisks Roxanne away so she can have a number 1 single of her own. And Bruno? Well Bruno dies. In his cage. Alone. From grief? Starvation? Neglect? Envy that he too couldn’t appear on X Factor? Who is to know? BECAUSE MORPURGO DOES NOT TELL THE READER ANYMORE DETAILS. The story ends with the narrator writing that the hat he wanted didn’t fit. The hat. That’s correct. The hat. Nothing else about the bear. Nothing.

I have a good imagination. I have a good understanding of literature. But even I am flummoxed by this one. What does it all mean? Nothing stays the same? You can’t stop progress? Not every hat fits?

This book does get excellent reviews and it is often used in the classroom but for me it was a major disappointment. If there had been a sentence or two about why Niki wanted a dancing bear and/or a character had objected to keeping Bruno in a cage it would have provided enough information for a child to start inquiring about dancing bears and keeping endangered species as pets. I assume that after reading this book a child will think that bears like to dance to music and it is fine to keep a wild animal in a cage as long as you ‘love it’.

Using The Dancing Bear in the classroom

So, if this book is on your curriculum please think about what Dr Amir Khalil and Four Paws have achieved and consider using another video (only one minute long) to help explain to the children why dancing bears are wrong.

Another Morpurgo novel that is also a really poor read in regards to character development is:

Mr Nobody’s Eyes by Michael Morpurgo
Cover photograph Getty Images
Published By Egmont
Here is the Kirkus review:

Young Harry Hawkins–overwhelmed by misery and self-pity–runs away from his postwar London home with a chimpanzee as company. Harry’s pillars of stability are crashing: his father is dead in the war; his mother has remarried and (to Harry’s disgust) given birth to baby George; and Harry’s often in trouble at school. The “”den”” he’s built in the cellar of a bombed-out house is his only refuge; his only friends are an old circus clown (Signor Blondini) and Ocky (a trained chimp). When Harry finds Ocky running loose, he coaxes her into his den; subsequently flushed out, the pair escape pursuit by jumping a train for the seaside. In a climactic scene, Harry’s stepfather (who is really a brick, would Harry but see) appears on the beach in time to rescue Ocky from drowning. After a happy reunion between chimp and clown, Harry decides to turn over a new leaf. The characters here (even, disappointingly, Ocky) are drawn with traditional British understatement–it will take a discerning reader to appreciate the mild humor–but the plot is well-knit; and several scenes, especially Harry’s sojourn with gypsies camped near a field of war-surplus tanks, are startlingly vivid. Another unusual, well-told story by the author of King of the Cloud Forests.

This review is spot-on. The character of Ocky the chimpanzee is completely under drawn and the story, for me, loses some credibility because of that (and also partly due to the title and cover of this edition which suggests Mr Nobody is the chimpanzee). Perhaps if there had been a note at the end about circus animals, or an explanation that chimpanzees are now an endangered species it would have offered an opportunity for a student to really consider Ocky as a character. This could happen, of course, in a unit of inquiry, but a reading at face value tells us that children are excited to see animals perform, chimpanzees are valued as performers (and also in this story as a guide animal as Mr Nobody is losing his sight and Ocky leads him around the ring and makes sure he doesn’t fall over) and therefore when Harry returns Ocky to the circus he is doing the right thing.

Using Mr Nobody’s Eyes in the classroom

If you are using this book in the classroom consider linking it to a habitats/home/family unit and encourage questions about what make us ‘feel at home’. Harry’s playground is a bomb site and his mother has remarried after being widowed in WW2. He decides to runaway with Ocky because he felt unwanted at home. Mr Nobody ran away when he was 10 years old to join the circus. What is Ocky’s home like? What would her habitat be if she wasn’t performing in the circus? Do chimpanzee’s live in family units like humans do? I think the characters could be rounded out nicely with some inquiry work. It will help the children to think critically about characters and story and also how animals, including endangered species, are being used for human entertainment.







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