There is an old adage in theater – “no children or animals on stage” – for good reason. They can be great distractions from the rest of the action. Get a four year old kid or a small, furry animal, and it’s too cute for words – the audience ooh-ing and ah-ing. Or, the spectacle of fear, terror and readiness to flee – also quite dramatic. But mostly, just too unpredictable. The animal may bark or wander off, the child may turn somersaults or start to sing. Or worse. In any case, it’s too big a risk, for the most part, unlike in film, where those scenes may be re-taken, edited, or cut.
Fiction is different. All kinds of creatures, great and small, may habit the same world of the book, although, for the most part, there seems to exist a fairly strict divide between books for and about kids, books for teens, and books for adults.
I like to mix it up a little, throw a few kids and animals into the worlds of my protagonists. Some of them are more developed and others have bit parts.
Here’s two-year old Frankie at the Bronx Zoo from Spanish Soap Operas:
Right off the bat, there was a problem. Outside the zoo entrance, a vendor was selling balloons and toys, including a big stuffed animal which Frankie wanted very badly. He was making a stink, kicking and screaming in his stroller, “Elmo!”
Marisol, unaccountably, was dressed for a party. She was wearing dress pants, a silk blouse, and low heels – for the zoo! Ay, Dios, thought Gretchen, this is not starting well. Marisol argued with Frankie that Elmo was too big and too much money. He wouldn’t listen. Marisol, behind her sunglasses, was getting testy and loud. Gretchen searched the vendor’s wares until she spotted a splash of bright red: a small plastic Elmo figure, and next to that, Big Bird – fifty cents each.
“How about this one?” she said, picking it out and showing it to Frankie. He looked at her suspiciously, but at least he was quiet.
“Elmo,” he said, reaching out. Marisol bought the two figures: one for each fist, and they were able to make it through the gate.
They were ready to head to Jungle World, still some distance off. After a few minutes, Frankie wanted to get out of the stroller, badly. Marisol, perhaps fearing dangerous animals, was set on keeping him strapped in.
“What am I going to do with this boy?” Marisol complained. Frankie was fussing so loudly, they were attracting notice. She stopped pushing the stroller and looked to the sky. “My sister spoils him bad. She doesn’t never say ‘No’ to him. Look at him – fresh, fresh, fresh.”
Frankie let out another ear-piercing squall of protest.
“He needs the chancletas,” Marisol said ominously, lifting a foot.
For a shocked moment, Gretchen thought she was threatening to kick Frankie.
“The slippers,” said Marisol, when she caught Gretchen’s expression. “You know, a little slap.”
Gretchen hung back, considering the situation. She had a lot of babysitting experience and wasn’t particularly alarmed by Frankie’s behavior. She was more upset with Marisol.
“Come on, Marisol,” she said. “We’re here now; let’s make the best of it. Let him out.” He liked pushing the stroller, taking his two new little plastic buddies for a ride. And he moved along pretty well, zooming here and there, once in a while aiming for the sedate pigeons that rose up at just the last second.
At last review, I have, besides Frankie, a couple young girls, a teenage female basketball player, a pair of spoiled Pomeranians named Ginger and Nutmeg, various cats, some geese, pigeons, seagulls, and a NYC rat.
Why? Because that’s how I like it, and it’s how I have experienced the world most of my life. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to the Red Road, the broad term for Native American Spirituality, because it is a way of looking at the world that we share with our two-legged and four-legged brothers and sisters. And because the view of children seems more realistic to me – not just potential adults, but fully formed beings, with their own rights and dignity.
Like it or not, every piece of fiction is a depiction of a world, with choices we make of what it looks like, how it works, and who matters. Sometimes in real life we end up inadvertently in “ghettos”, segregated living spaces in our main relationships, whether old and young, men and women, different cultural groups. Of course, I realize children and animals do not belong in a novel about a nursing home, perhaps, or on a fighter jet, but you’d be surprised how many places they may turn up. Children and animals can be messy, and unpredictable, and badly written about. But I say, bring them on. Old folks, too. We’ve got room. They’re important, too.