EL PAÍS. BABELIA. 13.12.2014.
CHILDREN’S AND YA LITERATURE SPECIAL / Review
Is it cruel to kill ants?
A book-in-a-box enquires into cruelty through play and inoffensive questions.
Ellen Duthie & Daniela Martagón. Wonder Ponder. Madrid, 2014. 17,95 euros.
By Nuria Barios
Cruelty is a common theme in children’s literature: abandoned children, hungry wolves, violent parents, bloodthirsty step-mothers, jealous siblings … It’s normal: we are born, we experience joy and suffering in a cruel world and children see the world like it is, and understand it much like we do: that is, not much at all. But in the darkness small lights shine, and a philosopher, an illustrator and an editor have just launched their proposal for talking about cruelty. It is called Cruelty Bites and works like a very modern Pandora’s box, full of tiny, inoffensive questions: Is it sometimes ok to kill ants? When? And how many? Is it cruel to make someone do something they don't want to do? (such as having a bath). Should aliens be allowed to keep humans in cages? Would you feel more guilty if you killed a duck by accident or a snail by accident? If the the huntsman killed Snow White, who would be responsible for her death? The huntsman or the Queen? ... A series of questions leading to others that are far from innocent: Are some lives worth more than others? Does it make sense to punish cruelty with cruelty? Is killing part of life? Is it possible to be cruel without meaning to? Can it sometimes be fun to be cruel? Is punishment sometimes necessary? How do we decide what is OK and what is not OK as a punishment? ...
'Open, look, think', says one of the sides of the box that contains Cruelty Bites. It leaves out one thing, because it is part of the very way the contents are presented: 'play!'. The narrative comes out of its format, opens up, fragments and flows, creating a new and fascinating narrative sequence. Fourteen cards are used to draw a map of cruelty based on scenes familiar to a child; that is, familiar to us all. Like cards from a pack, each of them illustrates a scene and on the back, in black comic-like bubbles, poses several questions. Common scenarios, such as leaving a dog home alone all day, lead to very simple questions that contain very complex issues: is it cruel to make a large dog live in an apartment? We call people who have pets their 'owners'. Can people own other people? Do parents own their children?...
Like a book with loose pages, the fourteen cards can be ordered as the reader wishes. The box also contains three cards laid out for readers to make their own Cruelty Bites scenes. There is another card where, among other suggestions, readers are invited to become a reporter and contribute to the ‘Cruelty Interviews’ by speaking to their grandma, the butcher or their brother’s girlfriend to find out, for example, whether they believe cruelty can sometimes be justified. And the box also includes a fantastic, extraordinary poster, that strikes one as a modern take on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Fantasy, Sendak once said, is the core of all writing for children, for any creative act, perhaps for the act of living.
The authors for Cruelty Bites, the philosopher, the illustrator and the editor, call it ‘visual philosophy for children (and beyond)’. This is the first title of a series they have given an English name, Wonder Ponder, containing the two main concepts of the project whereby a sense of wonder prompts a drive to think. And, of course, to play. The three of them conceive of the book as a transformable and transforming object. The reason why Cruelty Bites is so striking and so much fun, the reason why it combines play and horror so wisely, and the reason it moves with such ease from one to the other, is because its authors look at the world through children’s eyes.
Ellen Duthie, Daniela Martagón and Raquel Martínez chose the 20th of November, World Philosophy Day, to publish Cruelty Bites in English and Mundo cruel in Spanish. Other titles will follow, on subjects including personal identity and the difference between a person and a robot; on possibility and impossiblity; on freedom; on reality, imagination and dream and on happiness and the meaning of life.