Talking Animals in the Human World
and the Humans Who Aren’t Surprised to Hear Them Speak
Four of the most powerful words in literature are “once upon a time.” When a story begins with those words anything can happen and all is believed. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t bat an eye when a wolf begins to talk. Or, vice versa. Fat Cat can converse with soldiers as easily as washing ladies, mice, and kings. Not to mention, swallow them whole then set them free without any harm. Without that classic phrase to suspend disbelief contemporary writers tend to accomplish the same in two ways. Both come down to the strength of the author’s conviction and voice.
Those writing novels for older children often establish this leap of faith in a simple, broad stroke. In THE MOUSE AND THE MOTOCYCLE Beverly Clearly calmly states “Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.” Michael Bond’s explanation for Paddington Bear speaking English is equally succinct. Paddington’s Aunt Lucy back in Peru talk him English so he would be able to immigrate to England and fend for himself. Case closed.
Given the brevity of picture books, authors in this genre are even more economic. Carpe diem. No need to explain. Simply jump in and believe.
Jan De Brunhoff’s text and illustrations for THE STORY OF BABAR calmly have elephant, wealthy lady, and other city folk conversing as fact. There is no time for doubt because the story keeps moving forward in a confident voice. The famous crocodile and New Yorker, Lyle, also lives naturally among humans. Like Babar, Lyle never speaks specific dialogue in quotation marks, but he converses without everyone. Nor is anyone surprised or concerned to see him in department stores or antique shops.
Maxwell Eaton’s series featuring Max and Pinky (including THE MYSTERY) leaps forward in its own way. Max is human. Pinky is a pig who often wears painter’s overhauls like Max. They communicate with each other as well as the more natural, non-dressed animals on the farm (horse, turtle, bird and mouse). Once again, people and animals talk to one another. Case closed. On with the story.
It is important to realize how illustrations can greatly contribute to this leap of faith. Varying degrees of cartoon-style illustrations work best in supporting the leap into animals casually conversing with people. The greater the visual realism the harder it is to step beyond that realism. While we may not be able to control the illustrations, we writers who do not illustrate can still provide solid guidance through our voice and the directness of our descriptions.
Be sure. Be firm. Be nonchalant. Animals and humans may have conversed once upon a time, but there is no reason they can’t today. We just have to believe it ourselves.
Referenced Books & Others
A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON by Michael Bond. Houghton, 1958.
CITY CHICKEN by Arthur Dorros. Illus. by Henry Cole. Harper, 2003.
CORNERED ANIMALS by Randall Borchers. Adama Books, 1988.
EPOSSUMONDAS by Coleen Salley. Illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, 2002.
FAT CAT: A DANISH FOLKTALE retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. August House, 2001.
LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Weber. Houghton, 1965.
MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1966.
THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Clary. Harper, 1965.
THE MYSTERY by Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf, 2008.
NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.
THE STORY OF BABAR by Jan De Brunhoff. Random, 1933.