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Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about animal stories. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing stories starring animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Darshana brings up an intersting point. Are animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for choosing animal protagonists, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal stories simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

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  1. Sheri Larsen’s avatar

    Very informative post. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve wondered about the animal arena, using them in place of a child yet allowing their behavior to resemble that of a human child.

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Hmmmmm. I was working on a YA piece with a Guinea pig that turns into a werepig, a wolf that is a vampire (NOT the chupacabra) and a mermutt (she’s a regular mutt on dry land) as the main characters (alternating pov’s). All three are struggling to fit in at the local high school when they discover their amazing powers. I was going to call it a YA Para-animal. But, maybe not.

  3. Darshana’s avatar

    Thank you Mary for this very detailed post, this really helps out!

  4. Gretchen Icenogle’s avatar

    I think one of the reasons that animal protagonists remain popular with kid readers and adult writers (if not with publishers!) is that we don’t learn for a long time that there’s a hard black line to be drawn between human and not-human. It’s not much more difficult for a three or five or even seven-year-old to imagine the inner life of a squirrel or a shark than it is for her to imagine the inner life of her sister or the man with the scary black beard who lives next door. It may even be easier. By the same token, some of us writers have never fully recovered from the loss we suffered when the wide world of our sympathies got busted down to all humans all the time. We’re still looking for a way over that high fence with the “No Trespassing” sign.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  5. janischa’s avatar

    In a book about the craft of writing picture books, the author also mentionned the use of animals because they ‘are more international’ (no race, no color and sometimes even no gender), making them an easier sell. This made me panick because about in 80% of my stories, a boy or a girl is the main character. So thank you for your article. It made me realise there’s no need for a ‘mental switch’ to animal characters.

  6. Adele Richards’s avatar

    I’m not sure if this is a UK thing, but my observation purely as a parent reading a lot of PB to my kiddywinks, is that there are still a huge amount of animals as main characters in PB. At a very unscientific guess I would say more than 50% feature animals. They pretty much function in the anthropomorphic way as far as I can see. I just think it’s more fun when instead of having a child who doesn’t want to clean their teeth, you have a small crocodile with the same issue.

  7. Jan’s avatar

    Some picture books become animal books AFTER the author writes them. So picture books may be written with the author totally intending them to be people, but they become animals when the book is illustrated. Thus, many of the picture books you see in stores with animals weren’t written with animals in mind or pitched as “animal picture books.” I remember one in particular where the text says something about “hands” and the character (having turned into a very doggy dog in the publication process) clearly doesn’t have any.

  8. Deborah Blake Dempsey’s avatar

    Thanks for this article. It’s honest and helpful. I have written an MG with animal characters while fully understanding this is not the most sought after type of book (by agents/publishers), but the saying “write the book you are meant to write” is something I have had to embrace knowing that I face challenges. Your post has fully opened my eyes to know that yes, I will face hurdles with it, but I know that it is still possible for it to be published.

  9. Peanut Butter Jelly Time!’s avatar

    By anthropomorphic I’m guessing you’re referring to animals in their “native” form (i.e. appearance, traits, behaviors, etc)., who are in other ways like humans — their speech, mannerisms, personality, experiences, and so forth. Like the WB or Disney characters we’ve all grown up with and our parents and grandparents too. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and except for his temper tantrums and the fact he has a girlfriend Daisy who’s quite the fashion plate… Donald is otherwise a duck. ;-)

    But I would like to point out that there are exceptions to every rule, and notable ones at that. In fact animal interactions with and transformation to/from human form is as old as ancient myth itself. Twilight for example features werewolf teenager Jacob Black, who is Native American; Native American myths are brimming with animal/human characters as emblematic of certain traits or gifts said creatures were thought to possess. It is why they have tribal names like Running Bear and Soaring Eagle.

    And in the Pulitzer-awarded graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman drew all his characters as anthropomorphic, for the “cat and mouse game” the Nazis played with (and preyed upon) their targets, the minority Jewish population during Hitler’s regime. All the Jewish characters, Spiegelman and his family included, were drawn as mice, with the Nazis drawn as predatory felines complete with salivating fangs. Maus is certainly not a book for children but it does approach a horrific and often unspeakable topic (the Holocaust) in a way nonthreatening enough to open up the story to a wider audience that might shy away otherwise from the “graphic” depictions in Schindler’s List and similar narratives.

    Just wanted to throw that out there, that not all books/stories with anthropomorphic characters are WB/Disney caricatures or should be thought of as unnecessary or frivolous. Our connection with nature’s nonhuman population including fauna *and* flora is as old as our species itself. :-)

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