“I can’t stand hunting. I just can’t stand it. It doesn’t seem right to me that men and boys should kill animals just for the fun they get out of it.”
The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl and Illustrated by Quentin Blake
From the back of the book: What happens when the hunter becomes the hunted? To the Gregg family, hunting is just plain fun. To the little girl next door, it’s just plain horrible. She tries to be polite. She tries to talk them out of it, but the Greggs only laugh at her. Then one day the Greggs go too far, and the little girl turns her Magic Finger on them. When she’s very, very angry, the little girl’s Magic Finger takes over. She really can’t control it, and now it’s turned the Greggs into birds! Before they know it, the Greggs are living in a nest, and that’s just the beginning of their problems.
Then, one Saturday morning, I saw Philip and William coming out of the woods with their father, and they were carrying a lovely young deer. This made me so cross that I started shouting at them.
This is such a fantastic read for any class from Grade 1 up; short enough to read aloud in one or two lessons and lots of opportunities to ask the children ‘What would you do…’ There is a lesson plan on RoaldDahl.com encouraging children to debate killing wildlife: – I think just change the debate so it becomes ‘for or against killing wildlife for fun’ as that is the point made in the book. Whilst in school, Dahl himself wrote an essay against hunting calling it ‘foolish, pointless and cruel’. Do your students agree? Can they make convincing arguments?
Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
When Danny finds out his father is a poacher he joins him in a scheme to catch as many pheasants as possible from greedy land owner Mr Victor Hazell.
Dahl provides plenty of justification for his poaching duo:
- First of all Mr Hazell is despised and as Dahl loves to teach: bad people get what they deserve;
- Secondly, shooting pheasants is reserved for the rich. Dahl writes that keeping one single pheasant up to the time it is shot is equal to the price of one hundred loaves of bread;
- Thirdly, the pheasants are ‘fed like kings’ and are so fat they can hardly fly. The half-tame birds are driven by beaters towards the ‘half-baked men and their guns’; and,
- Finally, those shooting at pheasants are normally ‘rotten shots’ and ‘at least half the birds finish up winged and wounded’.
This Dahl story is a great read and is often recommended for Grade 4s /Year 5s. It contains everything people love and expect from Dahl. There are some very funny moments (I loved the pheasants flying out of the baby’s pram) and also one or two autobiographical details such as a mean teacher who beats Danny. I think it is a good choice for beginning to examine ethics ‘is an illegal action ever justified?‘ and as a pre-read to Dahl’s autobiography Boy which is often read in middle school.
Dahl was a nature lover. As Danny walks through Hazell’s wood, his father tells him lots of facts about animals. I didn’t know that “the weasel is the bravest of all animals. The mother will fight to the death to defend her own children. She will never run away, not even from a fox which is one hundred times bigger than her. She will stay beside her nest and fight the fox until she is killed” (108). Or grasshoppers have ears in the sides of their tummies whilst crickets have ears in their legs.
There are some dubious episodes in the book as the pair think up ways to poach the pheasants and decide that drugging them with sleeping pills is the best method. Everyone in the village, from the doctor to the police sergeant is ‘in on it’ and it all seems justified as the birds will have an easier death than being ‘winged and wounded’.
All the dukes and lords and famous men would arrive in their big cars … and Mr Hazell would strut about like a peacock welcoming them and saying things like “Plenty of birds out there for you this year.”
‘You know something, Danny,’ my father said. ‘We’ve done these birds a great kindness putting them to sleep in this nice painless way. They’d have had a nasty time of it tomorrow if we hadn’t got to them first.’
‘Rotten shots, most of them fellows are,’ Charlie Kinch said. ‘At least half the birds finish up winged and wounded.’
Garefowl/Great Auk illustrated by Jane Milloy. Hunted to extinction, the last was killed in 1844.
Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean
Bird illustrations by Jane Milloy
Stepping into a whole new genre, this award winning novel is all about hunting for survival. In 1782 a group of boys and men are left on alone on an island stac in the Outer Hebrides. Their job is to cull seabirds whose feathers, oil and meat are vital to the islanders. As they do their job in the harshest and most dangerous of conditions it becomes obvious that the boat that was meant to collect them and take them home is not coming.
I read this, wondering all the way to the end, which students would not only enjoy the story but also be of a high enough reading level (900L and Accelerated Reader 6.4 MY+). ‘Surely this is a book for adults’ I thought but then I read Geraldine McCaughrean’s acceptance speech and have to agree that we should all be presenting this level of literature to students. She said:
In my opinion, young readers should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last retort: ‘Words. Words. Words.’
One thing that would have helped me as a reader, would have been to have an illustration of a stac because even though McCaughrean is a superb writer it is still hard to picture the difficult and dangerous terrain.
Stac on Armin, St Kilda by Anthony ‘Ginger’ Cain
What intrigued me most about the story was the relationship between the boys and the birds. The boys are fowlers, killing as many birds as they can and storing their bodies for the journey home so they can be sold for meat, oil and feathers. They work incredibly hard:
“…climbing, plucking, strangling, netting, lugging, storing, rope-mending, bottling, “beach combing” for firewood, egg-gathering, puffin-snaring and the wicking of petrels.” (42)
But as time goes by one of the boys finds comfort in a solitary garefowl.
“Perhaps gamefowl are so sleek and fat that the fear slides off them. Or else they are born stupid. The bird does not shy away. She simply muttered to herself – like the Owner’s Steward when he visited Hirta to collect the rent: always making calculations under his breath and noting down numbers in his little ledger.
Quill said: ‘Hello. I’m King Gannet. Remember me?’
The soft mutterings went on, the bird rocking to and fro, balancing her great wings on one foot at a time.
‘Has the world ended, d’you know?’
The garefowl opened wide her stubby, flightless wings and rattled them. Lit by the setting sun, the spray fanned out like golden seed. Her flat feet made patterns on the landing place, which the next wave wiped out. She mumbled to herself, hoarse and crabby. But after a time, the noise came to sound more Gaelic with a thick, mainland accent. And, inside his head, Quill could see Murdina Galloway printing the sand with her bare, white feet. He could even hear her singing…” (72-73)
Quill begins to consider what it might like to be a bird as he remembers guarding the barley rigs again gulls:
“The stones they threw rarely hit the birds, but even so, what were the gulls doing after all that warranted such unkindness? It was the first time Quill had ever thought of things from a bird’s point of view. Perhaps, living among them, he had turned part bird. Fit for stoning.” (126)
But, Quills friendship with the garefowl is doomed. He feeds the bird and in return, so Quill thinks, the bird tried to feed one of the boys who was stuck in the rocks, like a ‘concerned mother’. But the boy in his feverish confusion believes the bird to be a witch; a sea witch, and thus the bird is hunted and killed.
The boys can’t understand Quill. After all “Birds are Birds are birds (except when the are witches or the souls of the malevolent dead).” (185)
This is a novel that you think about long after you have finished it. I hope it gets the readership it deserves. I think I will book talk this to Grade 6 – 8 (Years 7-9) and tell them that some dystopias exist purely in our imaginations whilst others are real and take every bit of luck and survival instinct a human possessess.