Picture Books: Animals vs Real Kids

So… PiBoIdMo has started, and I’ve recorded my first idea. (Insert art note re crowds of people cheering, confetti being thrown, maybe a few sparkly fireworks.) I went with my plan for this year and found a quiet, cat-accompanied place to sit and think, then pushed my mind out of the immediate surroundings and into memory and imagination. (Art note of more cheering.) And I pushed myself to think of the actual problem, a set of threes, multiple possibilities for turning points, and some layers to the ending. (Art note of people shaking their heads at hero’s hope this could work for all 30 days.)

Anyway, all that thoughtfulness led me to a bigger thought, which I want to share and about which I’m hoping you’ll chime in with some comments.

The story idea I got today came with an image of the hero as an animal. A non-human animal. A particular non-human animal with a particular problem. A problem that many real, human children experience. I could write this story with the animal or I could write it with a human child. Either will work. My gut tells me that I will write it with the choice that brings the story to me, that helps me see it best, that helps me get it on the page. So I’m not really looking for writing advice or encouragement here.

What I’m looking for are your thoughts on how this choice (not just my choice, but this choice every time it’s made by any author, illustrator, or publisher) impacts the child reader (or listener) of a book.

I recently attended KidLitCon, at which one of the big themes was the need for more diverse books, with which I totally agree. And one of the conversations was about how diversity isn’t just about racial or ethnic differences, but how it’s about everything–sexual preference, socio-economic differences, physical and mental disabilities or challenges. Everything. And one of the biggest layers in the push for these diverse books is the critical need for children in all these worlds to see themselves in stories. Again, a need I totally believe in.

More than one person said that seeing an animal in a story is not seeing oneself.

I don’t know. I totally see the point–the idea that you’re distancing the problem from the actual child, maybe padding it in a bad way with fantasy. That you’re denying the reality of the scenario in the real world and that–the bottom line–you’re not recognizing the child.

But…I’m trying to see from a child’s eyes and mind. Children have powerful imaginations. Children extrapolate. Children see the universal in the specific. Right? So if a child sees an animal with a problem, challenge, or just a situation that she or he has experienced, does the child automatically think, “Not me,” or does the child possibly think, “Hey, me, too!”?

What do you think? Animals or real kids? Sometimes one, sometimes the other? When and why? Thanks for joining the conversation.

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6 thoughts on “Picture Books: Animals vs Real Kids

  1. I think there’s a place for it. Sometimes tricky subjects are better seen through the lens of an animal. Sometimes it’s just good to see animals instead of people. I’m not sure about “animals” like Arthur — hugely popular, but where are the animal characteristics? I really like Emma Walton Hamilton’s take on anthropomorphism. Link included here, at the risk of this comment being shunted off to spam-land: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com/anthropomorphism-more-than-humans-in-fur-coats/

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    • beckylevine says:

      Beth, you make good points. And I really like Emma’s post. I do need to think about whether I’m using animals For No Reason–I would need to have an active reason, I think. And while she points out that an animal would possibly reach a wider audience that a Caucasian child, and that kind of is addressing the diverse books issue, that kind of re-identifies the need to help non-Caucasian child specifically see “themselves” represented on the cover and in the pages of a book. Something more for me to think about.

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  2. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman says:

    I call BS on the notion that kids don’t identify with animal MCs. In fact, lots of books were written for child MCs and turned into animals just to make the readers’ experience more universal and less about whether the MC is male or female, Caucasian or of color.

    I also understand and agree that kids need to see themselves in books, which includes seeingb kids who physically resemble them, but I don’t think it means there’s a problem with animals as stand-ins for kids in picture books. Or older books either. Some of the greats have animals – Olivia, Toot and Puddle, Goodnight Moon, Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Frisbee and the rats of NIMH, Stuart Little…

    T

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Kelly–yes, I think you make good points. But–and only playing devil’s advocate here, because I really don’t know–putting a pig or a stuffed bear or a spider into a book doesn’t up the odds that a child will see themselves (whatever or whoever they are) represented in a book. And I feel like those are odds we do, in general, need to increase. Hmmm…

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  3. Jenn Hubbard says:

    At the risk of providing writing advice – Why not write the book both ways, with the child and with the animal, before deciding?

    On the animal question in general: My sister and I grew up playing with dolls, which were in human form, and with a large set of plastic animals that we anthropomorphized and handled as if they were people dolls. The animals had people names, spoke our language, lived in houses, went to school, etc.–did everything that our people dolls did (except we didn’t bother putting clothes on them). I still remember some of the animals’ names: The pink poodle was Peggy, the yellow rabbit was Penelope, the collie was Sarah, the monkey was Mitchell (Sarah’s little brother), the gorilla was Romeo (!), the blue donkey was Nancy. We certainly identified with our animal “dolls” as thoroughly as we did with our people dolls. I suspect the same is true of book characters. (Heck, I even used playing cards as dolls sometimes–and not just face cards. The number cards, too.)

    I’m also thinking there’s a reason Aesop’s Fables used animals … and look how durable those stories have proven to be. You also have to consider the incredible popularity of fantasy in children’s literature, where kids are identifying with trolls and dragons and hobbits and talking horses and I don’t know what all else.

    I think all of these speak to our ability to anthropomorphize just about anything, and to identify with characters no matter how externally different from us.

    The thing about diversity in literature is that it, by definition, speaks to breadth and variety. The problem is not whether one boy character is possible for a girl to identify with (or vice versa), or whether one white character is possible for a person of color to identify with (or vice versa), or even whether an animal character is possible for a human to identify with. I would argue that all of us always have the potential to identify with any character. The problem is when all or most of the characters in our literature are of one gender, or one race, or one background, because although we can identify with the existing characters, we have unfulfilled needs to identify with other areas of human experience too. The question for us on the individual level is: what might be missing from our literature as a whole that we could provide with our story? And also, as writers, which character makes a given story work best?

    Sorry I’m so long-winded! Hope this makes sense.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Not long-winded at all, and you pretty much always make sense! Yes, I guess I’m doing some of that checking on what’s missing in my work, and I want to make sure I’m not taking some automatic step that doesn’t contribute to something I believe it–if I look at it some other way, with just a slight shift, can I meet both my writing needs and help bring some of this change as well.

      In terms of trying it both way–I may do that. When something isn’t working, I can usually tell pretty quick, at least in the short picture books. And I mean working for me, not necessarily for the story.

      On that note, thought of one new plot piece this morning which may actually direct whether the characters are humans or animals, and it would be very nice to have a concrete reason to go with!

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