* One Theme * Three Species *
“It is always difficulty to pose as something that one is not.”
The maxim or moral above is from the story “The Hen and the Apple Tree” in FABLES by Arnold Lobel. It is also a reoccurring theme in picture books. “Be true to your self.” “The grass is NOT always greener on the other side.” To include pop culture, the conclusion of these books is also the awakened celebration of Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” Writers for adults have explored this theme, but picture book writers are able to distill the theme by casting talking animals.
All begin with a dissatisfaction of daily life. Hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS, the horse in LUCILLE, the pigs in PIG TALE, and Veronica in VERONICA all find their lives bland and boring. They imagine that a different identity and location will make them happy. Who among us hasn’t had moments of similar fantasy?
And, who among us hasn’t had the experience of Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG, when another insists we’d be better off with this job or that dress or that partner? And though we may try to follow their well-meaning directions, we lose ourselves in the process.
Talking animals allows picture book writers to cut to the proverbial chase. That being, attempting to behave like another species. Trying to ignore your born realities. For these talking animals the “better world” is that of humans, the reader’s world. Which is doubly potent because the reader is also the one thinking his life could be better if only something was different.
Still, even within brief picture books there can be variations. Oxenbury’s pigs enter the human world with little notice thanks to their money. The hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS is clearly in a human world, but we never see her encountering a human. Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG and LUCILLE both explore the differences between country and city. And, thanks to the tone and brevity of the genre, neither writer nor reader needs to concern himself with who made their out-sized clothes!
All these talking animal characters find happiness by returning to their natural state. But, Veronica, Duvoisin’s hippo, experiences an additional level of joy and satisfaction. She shares her story, her journey of trying to be somebody else but finding delight by returning home, much like these picture book authors have, as well.
Picture Books Referenced Above
FABLES by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1980.
LUCILLE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1964
PIG TALE by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry Books, 2004 (1973).
SMALL PIG by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1969.
THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS by Nancy Moore. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957.
VERONICA by Roger Duvoisin. Knopf, 1961.