Works that overtly critique political theory have rarely been hailed as classics of children's literature. An exception to that rule is George Orwell's anti-totalitarian novel Animal Farm. An allegory of the Russian Revolution, the book tells the story of a rural farm in England where the animals rise up and expel the ruling class - the humans - whom the animals feel are exploiting them. The animals, who at first agree that "All animals are equal" eventually fall under the power of a new ruling class, the pigs, who teach that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Published first in 1945, Animal Farm was immediately hailed as a classic among adult critics - and because of its simple, clear language and perhaps also because the main characters are animals that speak - the book was quickly deemed appropriate for the young. As a novel, Animal Farm is most often read by middle school and high school age adolescents. But an animated film version from 1954 is even described as appropriate for ages sixand up. Fully titled, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story, the success of Orwell's classic among a young audience is testament - not only to the enduring quality of the text - but to the concept that children are capable of understanding the allegorical and political functions operating beneath the surface of a plot.
The book also speaks to children via its demonstrations of how language can be manipulated; How one word - such as "equal" - can mean two things for two different speakers. Language manipulation games such as this have long been a staple in some of the more canonical children's literature, from Alice in Wonder- land to Amelia Bedilia. The book also underscores the importance of literacy as it quickly become apparent that the creatures who learn to read are immediately granted a more powerful status than those that do not.
Animal Farm is a subversive work, in that it can teach children that there can be danger in blindly following persuasive leaders or seemingly egalitarian political theories. For some children, the book may provide them with their first exposure to the concept that a government is even capable of an abuse of power. This is an especially important concept for children who have been traditionally - the voiceless class - the nonvoting members of a society ruled by adults.
Orwell commented that "Animal Farm: [A Fairy Story] was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole." He adds that "it was very hard indeed to get it published." Any who have read Animal Farm as children or adolescents can thank George Orwell for his perseverance and for his conviction that a "fairy story" can have such depth of meaning.
Something About the Author. "Blair, Eric Arthur," 1903-1950 (George Orwell). Volume 29. pp. 39-49.
Copyright © 2002, Kevin Shortsleeve
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