Though children’s literature is filled with talking animals, few of these characters speak while maintaining their natural state. Even fewer exist within picture books. The primary reason for this is that it limits the human aspects of the story to emotions and logic. No external elements of people are allowed. No clothes. No human housing, jobs, or tools. And usually, no walking upright.
Maintaining the animal’s natural environment also eliminates many of the most familiar plot points in picture books. No stories about school, new siblings, grandparents, toys, etc. Yet, at the same time these limitations may feel confining to the writer, they can also nurture a distillation similar to the fable.
Amy MacDonald’s LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO centers on loneliness, friendship, and naiveté. Little Beaver is clearly a child substitute and also a natural beaver. By taking her characters outside the human world, MacDonald creates a quiet, wooded setting that allows an echo to be heard, but it also evokes her themes.
BABOON by Kate Banks is a multi-layered exploration of one’s environment. At the same time the baby baboon is discovering the physical aspects of the jungle, he is also learning the world is complex with little room for absolutes. Much like LITTLE BEAVER, Banks’ setting clearly outside the human world and its contemporary pace supports the gentle and reflective dialogue between mother and child.
Nearly 50 years old, Leo Lionni’s SWIMMY, is not only a classic, but also a popular classic. Its theme, strength through unity, is found throughout literature, history, and current events. By using fish in their natural environment, Lionni is able to distill and visualize stories ranging from the French Resistance during WWII to the final scenes in the movies NORMA RAE and WITNESS to the current protests in Wisconsin over attempts to cripple unions.
As always, the more specific the writer or actor can be, the more universal the experience becomes for the audience. If we have a picture book story with talking animals we have nothing to lose and much to gain by exploring a draft free of human trappings. Paring down our anthropomorphism to emotions alone might well bring clarity and help our story sing.
Picture Books Discussed
BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster Books, 1997.
LITTLE BEAVER AND THE ECHO by Amy MacDonald. Illus. by Sarah Fox-Davies. Putnam, 1990.
SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963