Anyone involved with getting children to read soon learns to keep up with what’s on TV. This year I’ve noticed an unusual addition to the pantheon of Disney princesses and super heroes – Sir David Attenborough.
I was reading David Walliams’ picture book The Bear Who Went Boo! when instinctively I put on a breathy, slightly preachy Attenborough voice for the TV wildlife presenter character who gives the titular character a telling-off, and the kids fell about. Meanwhile, requests for animal books have been taking off. It turns out that the driver of this enthusiasm, which refreshingly seems to transcend gender boundaries (fluffy kittens vs cool scary sharks) was Planet Earth II.
One thing we librarians find ourselves doing frequently is explaining the difference between non-fiction and fiction. I tend to feel uneasy about the proliferation of guides to fictional universes that mimic encyclopaedias and dictionaries – kids are already pretty muddled about what is and isn’t “real.” The strength of Planet Earth II is that it’s taken the pulling power and authority of a national treasure to head up the most cinematic natural history series ever seen on British telly. They’ve even got Hans Zimmer to write the score, and the editing and photography intentionally mimics the qualities that make movie blockbusters so enthralling.
Most important of all of these is narrative. We all love stories. We watch sequences like the breathtaking iguana vs snake smackdown on the edge of our seats. We sympathise with the ravenous lioness but still feel sorry for the giraffe she stalks. And I defy anyone not to chuckle when the brazen monkey in an Indian city market makes off with someone’s bottle of Sprite.
Not everyone relishes this approach to natural history. Martin Hughes-Games, producer of the more factual BBC wildlife programme Springwatch, complains that Planet Earth doesn’t take the reality of wildlife extinctions sufficiently seriously. “These programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening,” he says, “The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling, fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”
That does make me wonder if he actually saw the final episode about the interaction between humans and wildlife in cities, but I recognise his point. Of course (and there may be a little envy at work here) he’s right to say that Attenborough has turned natural history into a big theme park spectacular. When people with good intentions fall out in public there is often an element of wanting the same outcomes but disputing the road map to them.
The reality is that humanity has always relished stories. It’s how we learn, not only facts but empathy. Try talking to a six year old about whether we should kill a starving leopard that attacks someone on the way home. Ask a Hulk-fixated eight year old boy if he thought the snakes were cool when they throttled the iguana, or a sensitive child hooked on Magic Kitten stories if it would be right to intervene to help the disorientated baby turtle about to die in a storm drain. They’ll have an opinion. Take it seriously, and they may just become the wildlife advocates of tomorrow. Or at the very least, they’ll take the first steps to appreciating the complexity of human relationships, both with each other and with the other species on this planet.