When Animals Speak:
Perks, Perils and Possibilities
Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.
This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.
It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:
*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]
*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]
*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE DOORMAN]
*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]
*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]
*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]
And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.
On we go…
Picture Books Mentioned in This Post
FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.
MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.
NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.
SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963
WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2009
ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.