Talking Animals in a Parallel World – I
Some of the most popular characters in picture books are talking animals living in a universe parallel to ours: Frog & Toad, George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, Angelina, Olivia with her porcine family, and Lily with her purple plastic purse. But not all parallel worlds are alike. The author’s tone and topics shape their parallel world, and also reveal why he’s chosen talking animals instead of people.
A key decision is the age of the talking animal. As we’ll explore in a later post, many characters like Frog & Toad have no age that can be determined. They are child substitutes living on their own like adults, yet naïve and innocent like children. In contrast, Zelda & Ivy, Olivia, Angelina, and Lilly (and friends) live in “almost, but not quite” contemporary worlds and portray children with parents and siblings.
One might imagine Zelda, Ivy, Angelina, and Lilly as human girls. Their respective stories would still work, but by making them specific girls the sense of their universality would not be as strong. Their settings barely in the past allow a miniature version of “once upon a time.” Such settings can also give a book a longer life. Just as too much slang can make a novel feel quickly dated, giving talking animals cutting edge technology will quickly make them appear out of date and out of touch. Yet, settings only slightly in the past provide a sense of timelessness.
Olivia’s environment is more urban, and her behavior would make it hard to depict her as a human child. Her behavior and stories are too intense and over the top to succeed as realism. Like the animals in Aesop’s fable, Olivia’s pig-ness provides just enough distance for us to enjoy her behavior. Her pig-ness helps her remain larger than life and yet charming instead of becoming a brat we want to avoid.
Time and again, the question comes down to this: Will using talking animals as our characters help us tell our story and connect with readers. If our answer is “yes” then we should be able to articulate those reasons. If our answer is “not sure” then we would be wise enough to write a draft featuring real children. If the story no longer seems to work ask why? This process could reveal we need a stronger story. Or, help us understand why our story, like the ones above truly work best with talking animals.
P.S. Make note of these popular characters’ names. Just as their world echoes ours, so do their names. There’s not a single Rachel Raccoon, Iggy Iguana or Wilma Wombat in the group. Why? Cute alliterative names do not contribute to the story. Nor do they do anything to support the sense of a parallel world. When’s the last time you encountered a human character named Gertie Girl or Bruce Boy?
Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II
When Animals Can Tell a Story That People Can’t
ANGELINA BALLERINA by Katharine Holabird. Illus. by Helen Craig. Viking, 1983.
LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 1996.
OLIVIA by Ian Falconer. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.