By Renee Runge
Our lives are full of animals – in our homes, outdoor spaces, and sometimes even our classrooms. It makes sense that they would find their way into children’s literature, which seeks to put the world into children’s hands.
Children have delighted in stories about animals for centuries. In his famous paper Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), philosopher John Locke writes of children, “I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge.”
As Locke suggests, animals in children’s literature have a surprising amount of power and influence over the ways that children can interpret stories and messages. This is especially true when animals are the characters and focus of stories rather than an element of the setting.
What, as a writer, can you do with talking animals? Read on to explore the history and implications of animals in children’s literature.
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Origins of animals in children’s literature
The term “anthropomorphism”, the projection of human qualities onto non-humans (like animals), was coined in the 6th century B.C. by the scholar Xenophanes. At the time, the word was used primarily to describe the portrayal of polytheistic gods, such as those of the Greeks and Romans, as similar in appearance and mannerisms to their human believers.
Religious texts and artwork also tell us that when approaching human subjects, gods or other nonhuman deities and figures could assume the forms of various animals in order to communicate certain ideas or messages to them. One of the most popularized examples from western culture is the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is deceived by Satan posing as a snake in the tree of the forbidden fruit.
Despite not being aimed directly at child audiences, Aesop’s fables are usually pointed to as the first instance of animals appearing in stories for children. Aesop relied on the use of animals to convey moral takeaway lessons from his parables. These stories rely on animal motifs, such as the idea that a lion is brave, to transmit messages to their readers and listeners.
From the popularity of Aesop eventually came many other tales of animals throughout the eighteenth century. As children’s books became easier and less costly to print, the number of animal stories grew. Today, the number of children’s books about animals is frankly innumerable as so many have been produced.
To say that kids love animals is a big understatement. Kids cannot get enough of animals. Children’s media shapes and is shaped by this fascination with creatures that are not human. When animals start to take on human-like characteristics, be it walking on two legs, wearing clothes, or talking, it seems that children love them even more. Why is this?
Humans naturally enjoy seeing images of themselves reflected in the world around them. Have you ever looked at an everyday object, like a cup of coffee, and seen a pattern that looks like a smiley face formed in the swirl of creamer at the top? How about the front of a car, on which the headlights and grill look like they are frowning at you? We are psychologically driven to spot these phenomena to relate to.
Thus, when a child sees animal characters behaving like they do, a connection is formed in the brain. Writers can use this connection to their advantage when thinking about complicated themes they may want to introduce to the young reader. Although it may sound contradictory at first, animals make effective characters because they allow the reader to see themselves while also remaining distant enough from humans to permit children to consider messages in a more objective way.
Common themes and concepts that can be illustrated by animals include moral or etiquette lessons, rules and order, government function, or religion. The author’s use of animal societies helps readers apply these abstract topics in a way that is much easier to understand.
For example, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, also popularized by the Disney movie it inspired, revolves heavily around the idea of maintaining order. All of the animal characters abide by “The Law of the Jungle”, a poem that outlines a code of rules that everyone strictly adheres to. Even in a place as wild and seemingly untamed as the jungle, animals must abide by the law or be punished. It is well known that Kipling was a lover of rules and order, as he was involved in the Scout Movement, so it is easy to connect the dots and understand that Kipling wanted child readers of his book to be dutiful and obedient.
In Watership Down by Richard Adams, a group of rabbits leave their native warren in search of a new home. On the way, they encounter several other different groups of rabbits whose societies differ greatly from their own. These groups are modeled off of different types of government that exist in the human world. The primary antagonists of the story operate under a style of governing that resembles fascism–the rabbits who live within the system are branded for identification, have certain times that they are allowed to go above ground to eat, and are brutally beaten for minor infractions. While the story does not outright say “fascism is bad”, a child reader can recognize that a real world society that looks like the one portrayed in the book can have implicit issues.
Another reason to anthropomorphize is that it makes character development easier on the writer. Certain animal motifs already exist, like those found in Aesop’s fables, that create characters that children love. Some of these are rooted in biology, others are reinforced through repeated depiction. Here is a list of a few common animal motifs that you’ve definitely seen in children’s books or television:
- Cute bunnies
- Wise elephants
- Lazy sloths
- Laughing hyenas
- Noble lions
- Possums that hang by their tail
- Criminal raccoons
- Talkative parrots
- Evil sharks
- Mischievous monkeys
If you’re writing a children’s picture book, a significant part of your characterization will come from the illustrations rather than the text or dialogue in your story. All of these examples can be pretty easily expressed through artwork in the actions or expressions of animal characters.
Anthropomorphism has little boundaries for how you can develop characters. Similar to The Jungle Book, in some stories, animals may be able to think and speak but otherwise remain true to their natural state in the real world. Others may give animals more fantastical elements, like the extraordinary abilities of the spider Charlotte in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. There are many examples of books in which the only animal-like trait that the character has is the physical body of an animal. They are able to drive, cook, go to school, and more. Where does the animal end and the human begin?
Anthropomorphism can be applied to more than just animals, too! How many books have you seen where the characters are cars, food, or even plants? Any inanimate object can be given human characteristics to make it into a memorable character.
Children will always love these types of characters, making them a safe choice to use for any children’s story. The only limit to what you can do with anthropomorphism in your writing is your imagination, so what are you waiting for? Fill your next book with animals (or other non-humans) for a story children will be enamored by!