An astonishing number of the characters depicted in picture books are not people at all, but animals–or rather, humans who look like animals, for Horton the elephant of Horton Hatches the Egg and Pearl the pig heroine of The Amazing Bone are certainly more human than animal in their interests and motivations. In many picture books, indeed, only the pictures inform us that the characters are animals; to give just one example, Russell Hoban’s Frances is a badger only in Lillian Hoban’s illustrations of her; in the text, she talks and acts like an ordinary human child.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterizations based on what we know about their behavior. If a character is walking in the woods, for example, the presence of a deer evokes something different than say, a wolf, or bald eagle, or something totally unexpected like . . . an elephant. At a reading of Jasper Fforde’s he once said that crabs are funnier than lobsters, and that he wasn’t sure why, but he felt strongly that they were. We all have generalized associations with animals, and writers use those associations to drive an emotional reaction in their scenes. In the novel The Sisters Brothers, both protagonists have different relationships with their horses, treat and speak to them differently, and it reflects a great deal about who these characters are, what they value, how much empathy they have, and how relatable they are. In myriad ways, the presence of animals in stories enhances what we know about a character, foreshadows an event to come, or gives the scene mood and texture.
We have automatic, instinctual associations with certain animals, and I also really enjoy it when an author plays against them. Children’s stories often use animals as their main characters, very blatantly, but not in the ways that you would expect. My favorite book growing up was Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte, the spider, is the book’s real heroine and when she died it was the first time I ever thought about mortality, as grim as that sounds. Now, I love the work of writers like Laura van den Berg, Abby Geni, and Karen Russell, who use animals and other elements of the natural world in their stories. A lot of their work plays with the tension between the strange and the familiar, and I think this says a lot about the way we relate to animals: we want to understand them, but they will always be a little bit unknowable to us. Animals play so many different roles in stories it would be impossible to discuss them all here, but one interesting trend we’ve touched on in this discussion is how the line between the “human” and the “animal” is often blurred in fiction, with animals taking on human roles and humans, literally, assuming animal form.
Certain animals come with prepackaged character traits: wolves are evil, foxes are cunning, bears like honey. Cats and dogs don’t get on, pigs are messy and baby chickens are vulnerable. When an author wants to make use of one of these tropes, it’s efficient to make use of an animal. Also, one specific character trait can be emphasised in this way, and readers expect flat rather than rounded characterisation.
The other thing is, animals have long been seen as ‘plain speakers’. While humans don’t say things as they are, animals in storybooks do, like sages. The reader then has the choice to either appreciate what’s been said at face value, or look for some deeper meaning.
In some books, the animals don’t have the power of speech. Children identify with animals because young children cannot express themselves verbally either. On the other hand, it’s difficult to identify too closely with an animal character, which is just as well when we have small, cute birdies chased down by big, bad wolves. Animal characters can provide just the right balance of empathy and distance.
Young readers seldom have problems identifying with anthropomorphic animal or toy characters as long as these hold the disempowered subject positions similar to their own (therefore, mice, bunnies, and kittens are more popular in children’s fiction than tigers and other aggressive carnivores.)
– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature
3. VISUAL HUMOUR
An animal dressed up on clothes will never lose its appeal, although I’d love to go back to the day Beatrix Potter’s first book came out and see the look of true laughter that must have crossed the faces of people who saw animals dressed as, and acting like, people for the first time.
In a cast of many characters, making the characters into animals saves the need for an author to assign names and likewise, saves children from having to memorise them. ‘Miss Fox’ obviously refers to the character who looks like a fox; ‘Squirrel’ would be the squirrel. Also, animal characters can be more easily accepted as flat and static. Curious George can have his ‘monkeyness’ amplified. A non-human friend has no social obligations (no parents of their own), and can do things like sleep in the same bed as the human child.
As Perry Nodelman explains, much of this practicality is owed to Aesop:
There are historical reasons for this concentration of animals who act like humans, among them the fact that some of the first stories considered suitable for children were the fables of Aesop, in which supposedly characteristic animal attributes are identified with human behaviour. These identifications still operate in picture books today. The image of a fox in The Amazing Bone immediately evokes the idea of craftiness, and in picture book after picture book, we are meant to understand immediately that the lions depicted are arrogant, the peacocks proud, the pigs gluttonous, the mice timid, the rats nasty. As Leonard Marcus says in “Picture Book Animals,” “animals as images in our everyday thought and expression are among the most association-rich classes of symbols. Just under the surface of picture book fantasies, cultural meanings may well be at work.”
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
Nodelman also points out that traditional (Aesopian) ideas about which personalities belong to which animals can be turned upside down, used ironically. He gives the example of Pearl the pig in The Amazing Bone. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.
I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter.
All of this is not to say that problems of the dominant culture are absent as soon as illustrators/authors turn people into animals. On the contrary: the pettiness of current social practices can be univeralized, as described by John Berger.
5. DELIBERATE AVOIDANCE OF HARD HUMAN TRUTHS
Such as social, economic status, ethnic identity and gender roles. When characters are animals, all of this extraneous stuff can be avoided, at least if they’re moles living in a hole. Not so much if they’re middle-class white rats living in a suburban house. (Pinocchio can endure more than a human child would. Horrible stuff happens in that book but the animals — as well as the fairies — soften it up a bit.)
6. AN OLD FASHIONED VIEW OF CHILDREN
“To represent characters as animals or toys is a way to create distance, to adjust the plot to what the author believes is familiar for child readers. This reflect a stereotypical and obsolete attitude to children as not fully human, at least not fully developed as human beings… Fables, which represent human faults in animal figures, were considered suitable for children during certain periods. Animals are seldom portrayed as protagonists in books for teenagers or in mainstream literature, outside allegory, such as Watership Down, or satire, such as Animal Farm.” — The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, Nikolajeva
7. ANIMAL UTOPIA
A countryside populated by small, indigenous animals is many people’s wish, hope, and memory; but such a place, if it is to give imaginative satisfaction, has to be happy and romanticised. Animal life is not happy in the human sense; it is merely neutral. Human life can be, might be, more often is not, but always has, the possibility. Giving these small animals human qualities is to put them out of reach of inevitable fear, pain and death which is their natural lot. But the device also waves a magic wand and makes humans small, giving them animal qualities and cutting them off from human miseries and frustrations, sexual pangs, jealousy, bitterness and revenge, so that these minute societies have the best of both worlds.
— Animal Land, Margaret Blount
- The Wind In The Willows — this story does not entirely succeed at keeping real-world miseries out of the talking animal utopia. This is deliberate, as Kenneth Grahame has important things to say about real life.
- The Little Grey Men — written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the nom de plume “BB”. The story follows the adventures of four gnomes who may be the last of their kind. It also features the countryside during three seasons of the year.
- Tales of Sam Pig and Brock the Badger — by Alison Uttley, a British writer who wrote lots of animal stories for children. Sam Pig lives in a thatched cottage with Tom, Bill and Ann Pig, and also Brock the Badger. The Derbyshire countryside setting shines through as an animal utopia.
- The Butterfly’s Ball by William Roscoe — a poem from 1807 , so different from the moral stories that had come before that it forms the first of a new type. Animals are now dressed/humanised for ‘gaiety and charm’ rather than for ‘amusement and strangeness’. It was enormously popular at the time.
These sorts of stories don’t work nearly so well without illustration.
Perhaps of Interest: (Creating) Animal Based Characters from Computer Arts