Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary Analysis: Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps)

The reading (aloud) public's unquenchable desire to connect children with their agricultural roots (or at least their culture's roots in pastoral literature) ensures that the market for children's farm life books will continue to thrive even as many generations of consumers' families have not seen livestock outside of a zoo or field-trip.  Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps), Jenny Tyler's bucolic odyssey published by Usborne's Touchy-Feely Farmyard Tales imprint, while a relative newcomer to the genre (2003), has garnered praise from critics and secured Tyler and illustrator Stephen Cartwright a place in the pantheon of children's touchy-feely literature.

Much ink has been spilled concerning this barnyard romp; however, most critics have focused on the book's tactile qualities, seemingly accepting the literary content as an innocuous backdrop for the seductive text features.  In Amazon Customer Review "Sensible Mac" MacLean calls it "super-cute" and "durable," while Michelle "Kevsmom" declares it "the best touchy feely one I've seen," and Patricia Young observes that "each page has several different textures as well as flaps."  The book does have its detractors though, including noted critic M. James "luvs2read", who argues that "the flaps are positioned in a way that makes it very easy to shut them in the book incorrectly." He goes on to claim, "I have to hold the flap down to turn the page safely."  These pundits, even those who have quibbles with the quality of the touchy and the feely, ignore the greater concerns of Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) at their peril; for beneath the fuzz and shine and scratch lurks a menacing thread of existential terror.

At its heart, Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) is a mystery.  Superficially, this mystery manifests as a rather easily solved series of conundra: "Where's Curly?"  "Where's Wooly?"  "Where's Clucky?"  And the answer, when the reader lifts the flap, is always the same: "She's [or He's] hiding!"  It is tempting to plow through this book's ten pages pausing only to delight in the satisfaction of having discovered all of the missing livestock.  However, we may find it discomfiting to face the deeper mystery that is not explicitly addressed in the text: "from what are Curly, Wooly, Clucky, et al. hiding?"

In our travels through this farmyard--which, judging by it's scale and diversity, operates for sustenance rather than profit--we see the barn, the pigsty, the pasture, and the hen-house.  But we are never allowed a glimpse of that which converts these lovable animals to consumable energy.  The family abattoir, which an operation of this type would certainly require, is conspicuously absent.  I submit that these furtive farm animals are hiding from nothing less than their own grisly demise, in the form of the friendly farmer who might at any moment lead them to slaughter.  They, like us, may have never seen the slaughterhouse; but they are aware, through rumor or intuition, of its existence.

When the hiding animals are revealed, their expressions do nothing to distinguish them from their brethren who graze in the open.  They are neither surprised nor frightened, ashamed nor sheepish (except possibly in the case of Wooly); but rather, their faces reveal only slight resignation or dumb acceptance of their lot.  They are aware of the futility of their attempts to cheat death, but compelled to continue trying nonetheless.

Reading the book from this perspective, Tyler's final scene becomes particularly jarring.  "You've found all the animals now," she writes.  "But where are Poppy and Sam?"  The names Poppy and Sam are arbitrary and lack strong connotations, which is all the more effective when we realize that these names belong to a human boy and girl who are hiding behind their flaps on the hay trailer and tractor, respectively.  Had Tyler given them generic names suggesting characteristics of their species--say, Fleshy and Thumbsy--we may not be as stricken by their humanity.  Likewise, the children answer the question themselves--"I'm hiding!"--unlike the animals who chew and peck as the narrator explains the action.  Poppy and Sam are individual young people, with names and voices, who despite their innocence, feel a need to hide.  And unlike their animal friends who mill around in the foreground of the concluding montage, Poppy and Sam smile and wave to the ones who have discovered them.

We follow the trusting gaze of Poppy and Sam, and find that it is we who are its object.  We are the ones that they, as well as the animals, have been hiding from.  We are the farmer, the farm visitor, the mysterious other who cares for the animals and children, yet holds the keys to the abattoir.  But are we not subject to the same fate as the characters in the book?  Are we not gamely hiding behind our own flaps as we graze and scratch in the dirt, knowing that in the end we too will be consumed?  And does it make a difference whether we greet the flap-lifter with a wave and a smile or blithely chew our cud?  Animal Hide-and-Seek (with flaps) is a book that would appear to answer all of the questions it poses; but it is the eschatological questions that it avoids--the questions that gnaw on the sage in the back forty of our consciousness--that haunt its reader.

The girls contemplating their mortality


  1. Sick, but thought-provoking.
    And here I thought my critical analysis skills were withering under the onslaught of children's "literature." It turns out I've just not turned my mind to the subject at hand appropriately

  2. "Every body's pushing small town rural. A farm book would just be white noise."

    Have you seen Elf (Will Ferrell's best movie--no kidding):

  3. This is like a Pitchfork review for a children's book.

    I may have cried a little laughing.

  4. Butterbean's wrist looks nice and fleshy in your first pic. Fattening up?

  5. Brilliant - we read this out loud at a friend's house this weekend. We all agree that you need to turn these blogs into a book, Andy.

  6. "The girls contemplating their mortality":
    As well they should, with that *glass* kiddie gate!

  7. Love it. More of these! If you take requests, I eagerly await your critical analysis of the anti-patriarchal subtext in "Hop on Pop."

  8. Readily,
    Sick, eh? Try reading some classic German fairy tales.

    Yeah. Elf is definitely one of his best. I'm kind of partial to Old School though. But you can't watch that with the kids.

    Sorry I made you cry.

    We're doing everything we can to fatten 'em up, but they're still kind of shrimpy.

    Thanks! A book? Do people still read those?

    The kiddie gate material was spec'd by Bauenstudio. It's challenging the false dichotomy between upstairs and downstairs.

    I'll get to your request ASAP. I think you're behind "Goodnight Gorilla" and "Goodnight Moon." Actually, I could probably kill two birds with one stone and do an intertextual analysis of the two "Goodnight" books.

  9. This was just excellent.


  10. Fleshy and Thumbsy...have changed me forever...LOL!
    Nice post, Dude.

  11. These children's book reviews have caused me to look at my daughter's books in a completely new light. Sometimes it's disturbing, but at least I'm not just reading "Howard B. Wigglebottom" seven times and not getting anything from it. I guess.


    Really great post.

  12. Thanks, Pearl and Sweet Cheeks!

    OWO--"Howard B. Wigglebottom"?! Is that a real thing? Sounds pervy.

  13. Is it sad that I was nodding & agreeing?

    Or sadder that I got distracted by cute fat little baby hands & feet nom nom nom?

  14. None of that strikes me as sad, Keely. Maybe a little bittersweet. Poignant perhaps?

  15. It's totally real. Look it up: "Howard B. Wigglebottom learns to listen"

    But yeah, ok. Does sound a bit pervy.


Don't hold back.


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