Royal Animals review: Queen Victoria’s parrot, George IV’s giraffe and other treasurable true stories
As the Coronation draws near, children’s books about the Royal family are flying off the press. In the next few weeks, we can look forward to everything from illustrated biographies of Elizabeth II and Charles III to picture books such as The King’s Pants, in which His Majesty’s Y-fronts go missing on Coronation Day.
Royal Animals is the latest title to appear – and, with illustrations by the hugely acclaimed Emily Sutton, and a forward by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo, you can forgive it for looking fairly pleased with itself. But while it is billed as “the perfect book for animal lovers”, it is likely to be of more interest to the royal historian than to the budding zoologist.
It begins with an illustrated timeline, giving us a crash course in Britain’s royal dynasties since 1066. There are then 14 chapters exploring the various animals that have passed through royal custody. Some of the lessons are familiar, such as how Richard I introduced lions to the English royal crest. Others are less so. A chapter on the giraffe, for example, reveal that after George IV was gifted a giraffe in 1827 by Muhammad Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, the people of Britain were so entranced that men devised “a special way of knotting their cravat… tying it low on the collar to emphasize a long neck.” We also learn that Queen Victoria had an African grey parrot that “spoke French, sang patriotic songs” and could “propose a toast to the Queen’s good health”.
Julia Golding’s previous children’s books include The Queen’s Wardrobe (2021), in which she told the story of Elizabeth II through her clothes and jewellery. Here, as there, she does not set out to rattle any teacups. While there is a chapter about deer and the ancient royal hunting forests, there is no mention of the current royal family’s love of blood sports – or of the then Prince Charles’s famous hostility to banning fox hunting. (He is reported to have told a private gathering in 2002 that if Labour banned hunting “I might as well leave this country and spend the rest of my life skiing.”)
Golding does not burden us with extraneous detail. (“According to myth, if you see [a] magical White Stag, it is time to go on a quest!”) But the anecdotal pace – complimented by Sutton’s bucolic illustrations – constitute the book’s charm. Hardly surprisingly, the most sentimental chapters are reserved for dogs, with a brief history of the royal corgis, and a tribute to Queen Victoria’s spaniel Dash, whose grave in Windsor bears his effigy: “If you would live beloved and die regretted, / Profit by the example of DASH.”
If we are to believe a recent survey, only one in 10 teachers still use textbooks in lessons, as schools increasingly veer children towards the internet instead. This sad statistic makes reference books such as this all the more to be treasured.
Royal Animals by Julia Golding, illus Emily Sutton is published by Two Hoots, at £16.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books