I’ve been reading and giving feedback to many aspiring authors lately, and one issue has come up repeatedly to irk my otherwise want-to-be-generous reading self. It’s the way kid-lit writers use animals in stories.
There’s an old tradition of using animals as human stand-ins. Aesop did it, and even the Old Testament has a donkey who talks. (Numbers 22:28) But in every case, the storyteller chose the animal because something about its species conveys an essential character trait or function in humans, of which the story is really about.
This is most clearly articulated in. The frog is the one who can swim (and real frogs do) and the scorpion is one who can’t help but sting (and they do.)
Conversely, in recent picture books, some writers use an animal character humorously, as one who grossly doesn’t fit its species characteristics. Think of Olivia the pig who wants to be a ballerina. Every one of us humans has experienced this “not fitting the mold.” Ballerinas are supposed to be lithe and graceful, and this is not how we experience pigs.
This way, a cat character who loves to get dirty and stay dirty, much to the consternation of his feline friends, could work. The writer chose a cat specifically because cats are always cleaning themselves. The choice has to do with something of the real animal.
But more and more I’m reviewing drafts with anthropomorphic animal characters chosen for their novelty, (there are no other stories on the market with a Sugar Glider, so there) or their cuteness, (I like bunnies, so there) or just because why not.
This isn’t a new thing. Puss in Boots, anyone? But it seems more like an epidemic in the drafts I’ve been reading lately. Animals are chosen for the wrong reasons or no reason at all.
To this reader, this is not use but abuse of this venerable tradition of anthropomorphic animal-tales.