Talking Animals in the Human World
Who Do Not Talk to Humans
A popular sub-genre of talking animals is that of talking animals within the human world. These animals talk with one another and talk with the reader, but the humans in the story have no idea the animals can talk at all. This genre focuses on environments where humans and animals share space: farm, zoo, and, occasionally, the wild. Like the Gary Larson cartoon (above) these animals appear to live an animal’s life, but speak and often behave like people when humans aren’t there to see them.
The farm is the predominant setting for these stories. It creates an immediate bridge between the domestic world of humans and the wild life of animals. Due to the species best known as farm animals (horse, cow, pig, sheep etc) the farm doesn’t even need to be mentioned or shown. In HATTIE AND THE FOX by Mem Fox the only sign of human life is the barbed wire fence in a few of Patricia Mullins’ illustrations.
The farmer and family appear in novels like BABE and CHARLOTTE’S WEB, but have no idea their farm animals speak with one another. Because picture books are typically illustrated on every page the farmer rarely appears. And if he does, it is most often at a distance. Animals may talk, gossip, and have their own human-like lives, but not at the same time they are traditional animals in a farmer’s barn. The animals must maintain their cover whenever he’s able to see them. To have humans actually converse with animals or casually accept behavior like a cow in a kilt dancing on two legs would be a completely different level of fantasy.
The silly goose in Roger Duvoisin’s PETUNIA has one scene that includes the farmer, but she only speaks when he is out of sight. Janet Morgan Stoeke’s sweetly naïve Minerva Louise enter the farmer’s house, but the people have no idea she is there.
Three well-known picture books demonstrate the delicate balance between talking animals and humans when they do interact. Ferdinand (FERDINAND THE BULL) and his mother may speak, but they do not speak with the humans at the bullfight. The animals in Martin Waddell’s FARMER DUCK interact with the farmer, but when they do they do not speak in human language. They merely moo, baa, oink etc. The animals in Doreen Cronin’s CLICK CLACK MOO communicate with the farmer, but once again it is at a distance. They type messages, but never speak face-to-face in the same language.
As a literary element, talking farm animals have the following to offer writers:
*A domestic setting without humans
*The sense of a secret world right under the noses of adults. What child wouldn’t love that situation?
*A cast of characters that do not threaten one another. For danger, the fox must be introduced.
Just like some poets draft a poem in both free verse and rhyme to see which form best serves the idea, picture book writers have the chance to draft a story with humans, with domestic talking animals, and with animals free of all human contact. What matters most is which form best serves and shares the story.
Books Referenced Above
BABE, THE GALLANT PIG by Dick King-Smith. 1983.
CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White. Harper, 1952.
CLICK CLACK MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
FARMER DUCK by Martin Waddell. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick, 1991.
THE FOX AND THE HEN by Eric Battut. Boxer Books, 2010.
HATTIE AND THE FOX by Mem Fox. Illus. by Patricia Mullins. Simon & Schuster, 1987.
MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.
PETUNIA by Roger Duvoisin. Knopf, 1950.
THE SECRET CHICKEN CLUB by George Shannon. Illus. by Deborah Zemke. Handprint, 2005.
THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Illus. by Robert Lawson. Viking, 1938.