Why So Many Animals In Picture Books?

There’s a growing number of non-human characters in children’s programming. This cannot be minimized. Here’s the full report. (The Landscape of Children’s Television in the US & Canada.)

Before talking about the various categories of animals in picture books for children, let’s take a brief look at how people from antiquity have divided the animal kingdom.

According to from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges, animals divide into:

  • those that belong to the Emperor
  • embalmed ones
  • those that are trained
  • suckling pigs
  • mermaids
  • fabulous ones
  • stray dogs
  • those included in the present classification
  • those that tremble as if they were mad
  • innumerable ones
  • those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  • others
  • those that have just broken a flower vase
  • those that from a long way off look like flies. 

The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time

1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They can take human identities with their magic, and sometimes heroes take on animal identities to carry out their plans.

2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)

3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human shortcoming, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers  allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.

Firsts

Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.

The first dog book was The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Black Beauty is the first real animal novel (1877)

The Jungle Book (1893) is the first attempt to enter an animal world

The Story of Dr Dolittle (1922) is the first to consider animal rights

Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one

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
Comic strip by Guy Kopsombut

1. EFFICIENCY

Certain animals come with prepackaged character traits: wolves are evil, foxes are cunning, bears like honey.  These animals are character archetypes. Cats and dogs don’t get on, pigs are messy and baby chickens are cute and vulnerable. When an author wants to use (or subvert) one of these tropes, it’s efficient to make use of an animal archetype. Also, one specific character trait can be emphasised in this way, and readers expect flat rather than rounded characterisation.

Related to animals as archetypes, 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 to look for some deeper meaning.

2. MORE EMPATHY WITH ANIMALS

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 delight that must have crossed the faces of readers who saw animals dressed as, and acting like, people for the first time.

Salvador Rojo, Mexican artist

4. PRACTICALITY

In a cast of many characters, making the characters 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.

Again I’m talking about making use of archetypes, and 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 subverted, inverted, 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. These stories contain the message that we shouldn’t judge others based on preconceived ideas.

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.

Pippa Goodhart

So now, after a long tradition of storytelling, we are used to stories about animals which are really about humans. Why did Aesop tell stories about animals instead of humans in the first place?

Legend has it that Aesop was an African slave born in 620 B.C. and a hunchback with a quick wit and tongue. If you understanding that these stories were created in a situation where free speech was dangerous for the lowly, you will grasp the special flavour of the fables. Take the story of the “Lion and the Mouse” where a lion frees a mouse he has captured because of the little creature’s laughable promise to perhaps someday help the larger one; later that promise is fulfilled when the mouse gnaws through ropes after the lion is captured in a net. Here we can imagine a slave trying to subtly suggest to his master that sometimes the lowly should be listened to and can assist their betters; but we should note that this point is being made in a completely inoffensive and oblique way, by means of animals.

Jerry Griswold

However, problems of the dominant culture don’t suddenly become absent as soon as illustrators/authors turn people into animals. On the contrary: the pettiness of current social practices can be universalised, as described by John Berger.

5. DELIBERATE AVOIDANCE OF HARD HUMAN TRUTHS

The Humans Are Dead

It’s impossible to create a picture book — or any work of art — without covertly commenting on social and economic status, ethnic identity and gender roles (for starters). When characters are animals, some 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.) There’s a school of thought that children don’t see gender, for instance, so therefore it’s okay to code all animal characters as masculine. I don’t buy into this idea, but I believe it’s an influential idea which has influenced the number of animals in picture books.

However, animal characters can still be coded as white dudes.

Previously I delved deep into how jokes can be broken into categories, using a taxonomy proposed by the writer of The Onion. Today I will talk about an implicit rule of comedy to do with gender and also race: White dudes are the Every Person. Any ‘extra’ identity muddies the joke. This rule is less talked about, but is starting to be acknowledged. Next, it needs to change.

animal white dude default from Bojack Horseman

The creator of Bojack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, explains for us all why gender diversity is such a tough hurdle, and why the subjects of comedy are still — despite an increasingly woke population — white and male:

In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.

My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”

I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.

The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.

Boring Old Raphael, Tumblr

Bob-Waksberg goes on to say that this thinking is everywhere. He also says this:

White Dude As Default In Children’s Stories

It is also everywhere in children’s literature. In fact, it may be at its worst in stories for children. Bob-Waksberg even brings up The Lego Movie as his prime example — a big budget film which is first and foremost designed to draw in a young audience, with a large adult audience as bonus.

The LEGO Movie was my favourite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.

That’s why Jon Klassen’s characters are male. That’s why Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug characters are male. The main guy in Pig The Pug is even called ‘Trevor’ — the most non-descript, white, male Australian name possible. That’s probably why Oliver Jeffers writes a story about a boy called Wilfred and not a girl called Wilhelmina.

Bojack Horseman isn’t entirely problem free. It’s still about the problems of a white dude, as clearly explained by Eleanor Robertson at The Guardian.

But I have heard interviews with various comedy writers whose default position is this: My books are not gendered. This boy could be anyone. Even academics will argue that Winnie-the-Pooh is gender free. (Winnie-the-Pooh is sex free, but cannot be gender free because we have not settled upon a gender free pronoun in English as it’s widely used.)

It is remarkably rare to find a writer who will acknowledge the reason for why their main character is white and male. It is even more rare to find a writer/illustrator acknowledge that even though their character is an animal, that animal is obviously coded as white.

double spread from This Moose Belongs To Me

That’s why the creator of Bojack Horseman is so unusual. He is talking about a specifically comedy example of an implicit rule of writing, but writers have long called this “The One Big Lie Of Storytelling“. According to this rule, audiences can’t cope with too much new stuff in a single story. It is a particularly cynical view of audiences, but not without basis. (And in case I need to clarify, I do not subscribe to this rule. But I have heard it. I have heard it round the traps, and I know that writers subscribe to it.)

"The King of Ireland's Son" written by Padraig Colum, by Willy Pogany, 1916
Bojack Horseman isn’t the first horse head on a man’s body. This illustration from the book “The King of Ireland’s Son” written by Padraig Colum, with illustrations by Willy Pogany, 1916. There are also many horse headed men in the Indian folktale tradition.
'The King of Beasts and Other Creatures' by Ron Searle (1979), book cover lion
‘The King of Beasts and Other Creatures’ by Ron Searle (1979).

White Dude As Default In Speculative Fiction

Alongside comedy,  the genres of fantasy and sci-fi suffer badly because of this thinking. That’s because if the audience sees anything other than a patriarchy they must work extra hard to work out what’s going on. If speculative fiction is about the real world, only highlighted by dint of its being transplanted to an alien setting, both writer and audience must work very hard because:

a. They’re already working hard to form a mind-picture of this new world

b. Even just imagining an alternative political set-up in this real world of ours is beyond the imagination of most.

That’s why Game of Thrones is a white patriarchy, and why almost every big, popular fantasy series is also a white patriarchy, where dragons are a thing, where time travel is a thing, but where only one kind of oppressive system of politics works.  We recognise this political structure immediately, because it’s all around us in our everyday lives. Because it’s all around us, it is invisible within our stories. This lets us sink into the fantasy of the rest of it.

(When I say ‘the audience’, I mean the popular, ticket-buying audience who cite ‘entertainment’ as the main reason for engaging with story. That’s all of us at least some of the time. For most people it’s us almost all of the time. We don’t want to work too hard for our stories.)

This rule of storytelling needs to change, and I’m glad to see young, woke writers with a decent platform, like Raphael Bob-Waksberg, talking about it. I hope he keeps talking about it.

For those of us working in children’s literature world, little kids have not yet learned to question jokes about female characters. Humans are not born harbouring gender stereotypes. The place to start changing this expectation of male as default in storytelling is with picture books. Writers: don’t assume that simply by making your characters animals you are suddenly free from all gender and racial constraints.

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.

8. ANIMALS MAKE FOR GOOD COMEDY

Ayano Imai – Japanese artist

Due to the efficiency of animals mentioned above, with animals as characters the writer has an inbuilt set of jokes. Animals have their own characteristics (some common only within fiction) and writers can use these characteristics to launch character humour. Puns are also abundant when you have an animal as a character, e.g. in BoJack Horseman you have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is a maggot.

I do think animals evoke a tone within a story automatically, simply by their presence. Each species has its own characterisations based on what we know about their behaviour. 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 favourite 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.

The Masters Review
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can't animals talk
Easy Answers to Hard Questions pictures by Susan Perl text by Susanne Kirtland (1968) why can’t animals talk

Perhaps of Interest

A new study by University of Toronto researchers has found that kids’ books that feature animals with human characteristics not only inhibit factual learning, they may also hinder children’s thinking and reasoning about real-life animals.

Children’s books that feature animals with human traits create confusion in young minds about nature and biology: University of Toronto study, National Post
Lemon girl young adult novella

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