Friday, May 2, 2014

An Owl with Quaker Values

Last year, while browsing in a comic shop, I came upon a delightful collection titled Owly: Tiny Tales by Andy Runton. The cover featured a cartoon owl with enormous eyes in an armchair, reading a book for a gathering of forest critters, all wearing gleeful expressions on their faces.

Curious, I flipped through a few pages, and found it to be both child-friendly in content, but more interestingly, wordless. The characters communicated through a series of symbols, exclamation points and question marks, as well as lightbulbs to express having an idea and horseshoes to say "Good luck!" As a teaching artist who values visual literacy and parent of two pre-readers, I was pleased with my discovery. I purchased it while imagining my daughters learning to read symbols and also having a book they could "read" all on their own.

Later, I realized it had even greater value.

Owly: Tiny Tales (you can read an excerpt on Andy Runton's website) is a collection of short stories told in classic comic format. The first story was "Splashin' Around." On a blazing hot, summer day, Owly and his best friend Wormy go to water a drooping flower and find that their watering can has a hole in it. They take it to the Nursery where Raccoon patches it up, but not before they notice a flock of birds joyfully playing in a puddle that has formed under the can. Racoon tells the pair about a contest to build the best bird bath. Owly and Wormy decide to enter. They bounce their ideas back and forth and come up with a bird bath that is a large bowl of water attached to a potted tree, because birds love both water and trees. Their birdbath isn't the most aesthetically pleasing design, and they become worried when they see a much larger, fancier, shinier birdbath in the competition. Nevertheless, they wish their competitors good luck. Even though the judges all express approval with the reasoning behind Owly and Wormy's tree birdbath, the first prize is still awarded to the fancier entry. Owly and Wormy eyes fill with tears and they mope all evening. But the next morning, Raccoon shows up at their door with news of a happy surprise. They rush back to the nursery to joyfully discover that the birds prefer their birdbath.

I'm not ashamed to admit that my own eyes teared up a bit when I read this story. Most children's stories in books, shows, and movies fail to achieve this level of just sheer goodness, even when, and maybe especially when they are trying to teach morals, ethics, and values to kids.

In NutureShock, chapter 9: "Plays Well With Others", journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report on studies into children's entertainment. Dr. Jamie Ostrov and Dr. Douglas Gentile ran repeated studies, trying to find out if watching violent shows such as Power Rangers made children more anti-social, and conversely, if watching "educational" shows such as Clifford and Arthur would make children more pro-social. The results were surprising:

More exposure to violent media did increase the rate of physical aggression shown at school -- however, it did so only modestly. In fact, watching educational television also increased the rate of physical aggression, almost as much as watching violent TV. And just like in the Minnesota study, educational television had a dramatic effect on relational aggression. The more the kids watched, the crueler they'd be to their classmates. This correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression.
    Essentially, Ostrov had just found that Arthur is more dangerous for children than Power Rangers
Ostrov was quoted saying:

"Preschoolers have a difficult time being able to connect information at the end of the show to what happened earlier. It is likely that young children do not attend to the overall 'lesson' in the manner an older child or adult can, but instead learn from each of the behaviors shown." 

In other words, when preschoolers watch fictional bullies, they learn about the social advantages that motivate bullying behavior.

This is why Owly is so refreshing. "Splashin' Around" was a narrative that didn't resort to anyone being cruel or selfish in order to create conflict. Every person honored the dignity of every other person. Some experienced painful emotions, but were able to quietly sit with those feelings without lashing out at others. Resolution was found not in the protagonists getting the showy accolades they sought, but in them receiving a more profound appreciation for their efforts.

One of the first things that struck me about Owly is that his best friend is a worm. One of nature's most vicious and stealthy avian predators paired with a creepy crawly synonymous with bird food! I instantly thought, here is a contemporary version of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom is a series of 61 paintings by Edward Hicks, inspired by the Biblical passage Isaiah 11: 6-8:
 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
(From the New International Version) 

One of Edward Hick's Peaceable Kingdom paintings.
Of course taken literally by anyone deeply acquainted with biological science, the passage seems absurd. But I (and most Christian theologians) would argue that taking the passage literally is absurd. Certainly Hicks, a Quaker, didn't take it literally. This passage is far more interesting and indeed inspiring when interpreted symbolically. Quakers such as Hicks believe the "inner light", or that which is of God, is part of every human being. Learning to think and live the right way allows people to tap into the divine, and thus salvation.

To me, a secular humanist, this passage and Hick's fanciful imagery represents the human animal striving to create conditions that bring out that which is most noble about our species.

I taught art for two years at a PreK-8th grade Friends (Quaker) school, and reading Owly stories, I constantly find parallels between his fictional world and the ideals expressed in the Quaker Testimonies.

Quakers worship in silence, only speaking if moved by the "inner light." Referring to the testimony of Silent Reflection as a "habit of mind", the American Friends Service Committee writes:
...silence is often used to settle into a meeting, to invite reflection, or to allow time for the synthesis of ideas. Silence refreshes the spirit and makes way for deep thinking about both ethical and intellectual quandaries.
There is a lot of silence in Owly stories, not only because of the absence of true dialogue. Almost every tale begins with a framed panoramic view of the larger setting. Owly and his friends are often seen eating in silence, awake in bed thinking, quietly assessing their surroundings, setting up, building, or just sitting quietly. All of these moments compel a deeper appreciation for simply being alive and self aware.

The testimony of Simplicity is often expressed. The winning bird bath was rather ostentatious, but in the end the birds preferred Owly and Wormy's more simple design. In the story "Helping Hands", the rabbit drops and breaks a fancy potted plant she has purchased as a gift for her grandfather. Owly and Wormy help her create a new pot with handmade decorations. The rabbit worries that her grandfather will be disappointed by her handmade gift, but after she sheepishly explains what happened, he declares the handmade pot to be better than a whole bunch of fancy store bought ones.

Many associate Quakers with the testimony of Peace, due to their long history of organized war protest and conscientious objection to military service. Violence, both physical and verbal, is so prevalent in popular children's literature and entertainment that it is taken for granted. But in Quaker schools and homes, it is common to ban even toy weapons. At the school where I taught, children were prohibited from excluding others from games. Out of the 12 stories in Tiny Tales, none involve physical violence, and only 2 include the violence of harsh words or aggressive behavior. In both of those, the conflict was resolved through changes in circumstance, kindness, or cooperation, opposed to the "good guys" responding with their own threats.

Another testimony is Stewardship, or reference for nature and conservation of natural resources. The characters in Owly are constantly outdoors, planting and caring for plants and feeding wildlife. Racoon's nursery is is an essential part of many stories. An appreciate for nature has been part of Owly's world from the beginning. In the back of Tiny Tales, Runton writes:

When I was trying to come up with a comic book idea, I tried dragons, aliens, ninjas... but nothing worked. Then one day, I looked closer at my little owl. And I drew this... It kinda summed up what I felt. I wanted to draw comics about this little owl. But I was afraid to be myself. 

Note how Owly doesn't pick the flower. He simply enjoys it, and then draws a picture so as to translate the experience through creative expression and then have a piece of that experience with him in his home.

The best thing about Quaker testimonies is that although they are proscribed by a religious sect, they are ultimately secular and universal to the human experience. It is no surprise for me to discover, in my work at a Quaker school, that many modern-day Quakers, especially on the East Coast, are also atheists and agnostics.

I recently purchased a copy of Owly & Wormy: Friends All Aflutter. This book is a large, hardback, full color 40 page picture book; in other words, an object of value to be cherished. My daughter was thrilled.

The story was in line with the values of the previous volume. In it, Owly and Wormy attempt to attract butterflies with flowers, To their dismay, a couple of caterpillars begin munching away at the plants. Despite their initial upset, Owly and Wormy befriend these invaders and come to prefer their company to the hypothetical butterflies. Soon they are striving to keep the caterpillars comfortable enough to return when they disappear (unbeknownst to Owly and Wormy, the caterpillars never left; they are merely in their chrysalises). Owly's and Wormy's putting kindness and friendship over their desire for superficial beauty is rewarded when their friends emerge, transformed.

Truly these are the values to teach the upcoming generation; the values and actions necessary to live the best life possible, and also build a better world.

May we all learn from the wisdom of owls.
Addendum: On a related note, another stunningly illustrated picture book with owls and which supports the values of nonviolence, quiet contemplation, and appreciation for simplicity and nature is The Happy Owls by Celestino Piatti.


  1. What a great find! We'll look for these titles on our next library trip.

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