Archives for posts with tag: anthropomorphic characters in picture books

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – III

Child Substitutes

OWL AT HOME by Arnold Lobel

“The children don’t know, but the truth of the story, whatever gives it validity, is its truth to me, as an adult.”

Arnold Lobel

Some of the most beloved talking animals in picture books are frequently described as “child substitutes.” They exist in a mezzanine world between childhood and adulthood. Characters like Frog and Toad are a double fantasy. First–the animals talk. Second–the characters get to live on their own (be their own boss), yet aren’t burdened with adult duties.

DAYS WITH FROG AND TOAD by Arnold Lobel

If Frog and Toad or George and Martha were children (even talking animal children) readers would immediately want to know why they’ve been abandoned. There’s nobody watching out for them. Why are they living alone? Who makes their dinner? If Frog and Toad were adults (human or animal) a different set of urgent questions would arise. Why don’t they have a job? Why don’t they always wear pants? Or, why is George naked and Martha only has a skirt? Why are they worried about child issues like flying kites and hating pea soup?

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall

When we read “The Corner” in Lobel’s third collection of stories about Frog and Toad, Frog tells a story involving his parents. It is a jarring moment because it is a significant shift in type of fantasy. How can one be a “child substitute” if he had parents? If he had parents, then shouldn’t he should be a grownup by now.

Other books like Tim Eagan’s ROASTED PEANUTS explore friendship between child substitutes, but this literary element can work just as well when writing about solo characters.  Arnold Lobel created the very solitary OWL AT HOME. Another popular example is SCAREDY SQUIRREL by Melanie Watt.

Using child substitutes allows a sense of distance and suspended disbelief much like talking animals do in traditional fables. And though it may seem contradictory, this distance opens doors to intimacy. Once external reality is suspended, adult writer and child reader can meet on the mezzanine between their daily lives, and savor the emotional core of the story.

Sources Referenced Above

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton, 1972.

FROG AND TOAD ALL YEAR by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1976.

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel, Harper 1970.

“An Interview with Arnold Lobel” with Roni Natov and Geraldine DeLuca. THE LION AND THE UNICORN (1977):72-97.

OWL AT HOME by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1975.

ROASTED PEANUTS by Tim Eagan. Houghton, 2006.

SCAREDY SQUIRREL by Melanie Watt. Kids Can Press, 2006.

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Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II

When Animals Can Share a Story That People Can’t

Picture Book Conundrum 101: At the same time the use of talking animals can drag a story into cavity-inducing sap, the use of talking animals can also prevent certain themes from becoming too saccharine, scary, absurd, or even disgusting. The difference comes down to the writing and understanding the ways talking animals can be used as a literary element rather than merely cuteness.

THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond is a masterful example of how the use of talking animals can both lighten and open a story. The night of the performance “Roger stood backstage. He had a small but important role.” Seeing Roger as a mouse we wonder what that role is, but because we are already in a relaxed realm of fantasy we stay with the story’s event rather than starting to think too much. If Bond had cast her book with human children readers would likely be sidetracked by pity, concern, and questions attempting to explain why Roger “had a small but important role.”  By using talking animals, Bond helps this particular story sing.

Adults and children would be horrified to find a picture book with a human child alone in the woods on Halloween night. However, Kathryn Galbraith’s use of talking animals in BOO, BUNNY! allows her story about Halloween and fear to be safely accessible. The element of fable allows the focus to remain on the evolving emotions and blooming friendship without the human NEED for context and explanation.

NO, THAT’S WRONG! by Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu celebrates the incrimination and folly of conventional thinking. A pair of lacey red underpants comes blowing with the wind and land on Rabbit’s head. Rabbit declares his new item a hat. If it had been a human character of any age readers would view them as feeble-minded. How can you not know what underpants are? Talking animals, however, are allowed to be naïve and innocent. Children immediately feel both compassionate and superior. In other words, they feel engaged, and once involved in the story, readers are more able to receive the story’s final twist: context and perspective are more important than conventionality. The red item maybe underwear for people, but for Rabbit it’s a lovely hat with ear holes.

Wise and clever jesters knew it was more effective to criticize royal behavior through jest and fable. Realism might offend the king and, at the least, end a jester’s career. Picture book writers may not risk losing their heads, but we do risk losing the audience when we press too hard.

There are many plots, themes and topics where realism could easily be too “in your face.” Lisa Kopelke’s TISSUE, PLEASE is a fine example of using talking animals as a way of not pressing too hard. By featuring frogs, Kopelke is able to explore the realities of snotty-nosed children who need to learn some manners. Children are able to grin and shake their heads over the ill-mannered frogs, and in that frame of mind children are also more able to discover the purpose of the book. Aka: BLOW YOUR NOSE WITH A TISSUE! A book full of realistic snotty-nosed children would probably disgust even the snotty-nosed child.

When we think about using talking animals in a story it is also wise to ask, “What can they do for my story?” Give them a purpose. They my be cute and cuddly, but make sure they make a contribution.

Picture Books Discussed

BOO,BUNNY by Kathryn O. Galbraith. Illus. by Jeff Mack.

Harcourt, 2008.

THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

NO! THAT’S WRONG by Zhaohua Ji & Cui Xu. Kane/Miller, 2008.

TISSUE, PLEASE! by Lisa Kopelke. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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.

THE NEW YORKER

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?

Next:

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II

When Animals Can Tell a Story That People Can’t

 

Books Discussed

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.

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities

E. H. Shepard THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.

This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.

It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:

*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie.  WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE  DOORMAN]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]

*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]

*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]

And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.

On we go…

Picture Books Mentioned in This Post

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia          Monks. Holt, 2009

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

THE NEW YORKER