Archives for posts with tag: Susan Meddaugh

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities


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.


Kafka, Picture Books, and Spiderman

Linking Franz Kafka with picture books may seem absurd, but influences of his short story “The Metamorphosis” can be found in many books for young children.

These picture books are certainly fantasies, but the character’s metamorphosis is the single element of fantasy. Each narrative begins with a straight-faced leap from a very high diving board. The impossible literally happens, and must be dealt with in the real world. They are the ultimate “fish out of water” tale even though the (former) fish remains in his home water.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop begins:

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks begins:

One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish. Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon. Louis did not lead, before this an unusual life…

David Small’s IMOGENE’S ANTLERS begins:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

Like Kafka’s salesman, these three characters discover their transformation as they wake in bed one morning.

Other sudden and extreme transformations occur in picture books, but the change is more internal.  These tales are less like Kafka than they are Spiderman where a spider bite transforms a nerd to superhero. Susan Meddaugh’s dog, Martha, is suddenly able to speak after consuming a bowl of alphabet soup. In WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD, David McPhail’s dog begins as a typical puppy chewing toys and tinkling on the rug. But once “something striking” happens (lightning) Weezer begins predicting weather, playing piano, helping doctors solve diseases, and more.

Scott Santoro’s FARM-FRESH CATS offers a third type of poker-face dive into the extreme. It’s not an individual who is suddenly transformed within or without, but agriculture. A farmer checks his field and discovers that his crop is no longer cabbages but cats. Once again, the drastic metamorphosis is identified as something unexplainable. Then, on with the action and story’s arc.

These stories featuring outrageous events have a distant relationship to the tall tales found in folklore. But the two genres have more differences than similarities. While tall tales pile one impossible situation on top of another, these Kafka style picture books stick with one or perhaps two impossible actions. The traditional narrator of a tall tale is also very tongue-in-cheek. The narrator knows he’s telling a lie and with a wink let’s the audience knows that he knows that they know he’s telling a lie. It’s all part of the game and the fun.

In contrast, the tone and voice of Kafka-style picture books are both poker-faced. There may be humor, but it is based in characters’ coping with the transformation rather than the outlandish events that occur and their descriptions.

Why not play with our own dives off the high board into the impossible? This approach can provide rich exercise opportunities. We’ve got nothing to lose but opportunities.

Sample Picture Books That Echo Kafka’s Leap Outside Reality

A BAD CASE OF STRIPES by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, 1998.

IMOGENE’S ANTLERS by David Small. Crown, 1985.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks. Illus. by Richard Egielski. Farrar, 1980.

FARM-FRESH CATS by Scott Santoro. HarperCollins, 2006

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop. Illus. by Robert McCloskey. Viking, 1942.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh.  HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 1995.

WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD by David McPhail. Beach Lane, 2009.