Animal magic! Or: why kids love animals in stories

On the back of a plethora of book reviews that Holly and I did last week featuring cats, I thought it would be good to look at why animals are so commonly used as characters in children’s literature, especially since they are not so conspicuous in stories for adults.

Foolhardy foxes

Casting a quick look back through the ages, anthropomorphism is nothing new. Aesop’s Fables, which date back to the fifth century BC, according to a website by the same name, often feature foolish animals whose behaviour leads them to learn a lesson.

Instant identity

Fables have been likened to parables for adults in the moral they are trying to instil, but animals are used instead because of their greater appeal to younger minds. This still doesn’t explain why, however, animals are so attractive. So I contacted Kate Wilson, at children’s publishers Nosy Crow, to get an insider’s view on the issue.

‘I think that animals are popular in children’s books because they’re easy for children to identify with. Whatever the colour of your hair, or your skin, or your eyes, or even your exact age you can identify with a rabbit. I also think that some characteristics or emotions can be embodied in animals whose size or other physical attributes can be very visible and easily comprehensible symbols of those characteristics or emotions (the aggressive tiger, the timid little mouse, the mud-loving pig, the funny, cheeky monkey…). Finally, animals can have a sort of independence that children can’t have. The first and last of these reasons were what led us to create and publish Pip and Posy: a rabbit and a mouse, who are easy for children to identify with.

Pip and Posy, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (Nosy Crow books)

This makes sense when you consider other children’s books that feature animals in the main role. Classics such as Winnie the Pooh and The Wind and the Willows have these animals embodying very real human traits; think Pooh’s greediness (with honey), Eyeore’s moroseness, Piglet’s anxiety, and Tigger’s ebullience. What is interesting too is that they are loveable despite their ‘flaws’ – and in fact they are given plenty of opportunities to act in positive ways that show they are more than their weaknesses. Admittedly, the animals in The Wind in the Willows aren’t as cute they are still charming and entertaining – we still root for Toad when he is conniving and naughty and don’t want to see harm come to him. His friends do too, which shows that no matter what your faults, you still deserve friendship and kindness.

Animals as subversive

Interestingly, Alison Lurie, in her fascinating book on children’s literature Don’t Tell the Grown-ups, claims that Beatrix Potter used animals not so much as to illustrate a moral than to subvert the very lessons that one would assume were being expounded in her works.

‘[Potter’s] books… broke completely with the traditional pattern of the animal tale or fable, which had always been used to point an improving moral… In Peter Rabbit, for instance, Potter at first seems to be recommending restraint and obedience. At the end, Peter is sent to bed in disgrace after his exciting adventures in Mr McGregor’s garden, while good little Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail “has bread and milk and blackberries for supper”. But when I asked a class of students which character they would have preferred to be, they voted unanimously for Peter, recognizing the concealed moral of the story: that disobedience and exploration are more fun than good behaviour, and not really all that dangerous, whatever mother may say.’ (Page 95)

Not so cuddly after all, now? You naughty, subversive bunny!

I think that Lurie puts it well when she sums up why she thinks animals are so attractive to children, especially rabbits, mice, squirrels and kittens: ‘…after all, it was not so long ago since they too were inarticulate, instinctive, small creatures, with simple animal needs and pleasures. They still know what it feels like to steal food when larger people’s backs are turned, as Peter Rabbit does…’

It also is about getting one up on the people who have the power. The nature itself of having animals in stories is subversive – as Holly pointed out to me: ‘Humans can talk, animals can’t. That’s why I like reading about them in books. They are more interesting than humans and can do more unexpected things. Especially cats. I love cats.’

Really Holly? We hadn’t noticed!

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