Straight Talk About Talking Animals
© 2001 Children's Book Insider, LLC
Laura Backes, Publisher, Children's Book
Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers
Twenty years ago "talking animal stories" were everywhere. Then, in the early 1990's, many editors decided they didn't want to see these books anymore. Of course, established authors like William Steig never stopped populating their stories with chatty mice or frogs, but beginning writers had trouble getting talking animal books past the slush pile. Now the tide has turned again, and it appears that every publisher has new picture books featuring animals with something to say.
However, you can't just plop a cute bunny in your story and expect it to sell. The number one rule in children's fiction writing will always be to base your story on endearing, believable, unique characters. I've studied talking animal books and found they fall into three basic categories:
* Animals Who Act Human
Everyone is familiar with stories like Marc Brown's picture books about Arthur the aardvark, or Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear series of easy readers. In these books the main character lives with his or her family within a society of animals that mirrors human society. They go to school, wear clothes, play with toys and have very human problems. The main character is a child just like the reader, and has childlike thoughts, feelings and concerns. The fact that they're animals makes them visually endearing to young readers, but it's easy to forget that they're not human.
Another kind of book are stories in which the characters are animals who act human, but they're not really kids. They live alone without parents. Though they're adults in the animal world, they're really kids at heart with very childlike outlooks on life. Often these books center around the friendship of two animals, such as the Frog and Toad easy readers by Arnold Lobel, and the Toot & Puddle picture books by Holly Hobbie. Part of the charm of these characters is that children can relate to creatures who are supposedly grown up.
* Animals Who Act Mostly Human
Another category is books in which the animals act mostly human, but retain a few elements of their true animal nature. This subtly reminds the reader that though these animals may talk, ride bikes and visit the playground, they're still animals. Often the characters are depicted in illustrations without clothes.
Children are drawn to these books because they're about talking animals, an idea they find funny, delightful, and know is something adults would never accept. Paulette Bourgeois' picture books about Franklin the turtle is one example. Though Franklin functions mainly as a kid, he sleeps in his shell and doesn't have teeth (and thus feels cheated because he'll never be visited by the tooth fairy). Jonathan London's series of very early readers shows Froggy hopping and flopping around as he tries to get dressed, and being reminded by his mother that he's supposed to sleep through the winter (because that's what frogs do). In Mem Fox's Possum Magic, the possums live in trees in the Australian bush and are wary of snakes, even though they dine on pumpkin scones and vegemite sandwiches.
Once you start gravitating toward reality with your talking animals, you open the door for older readers. The juxtaposition of fantasy and reality can be a compelling mix if done skillfully. Brian Jacques' Redwall, a young adult novel about an abbey of peaceful mice that is attacked by an army of savage rats is a prime example.
* Animals Who Talk But Remain Animals
The third category are animals who happen to talk, but otherwise remain true to their animal selves. Generally, if these characters interact with humans they act as any real animal would--in other words, they don't carry on conversations with people. Though the animals may (and should) face problems that children can relate to, these problems arise and are solved within the boundaries of the animal world. This scenario is perfect for middle grade readers. In E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, when Wilbur the pig learns his fate is to be sold to a butcher, it's Charlotte the spider's intelligence that helps save his life. James Howe's hilarious Bunnicula is the story of a dog and cat who go to great lengths to find out whether or not the family's pet rabbit is really a vampire. In each case the authors used real animals as their models, and then imagined what they might actually say if they could talk. Such careful groundwork results in characters who are believable and very real to the reader.
Of course, you'll always find variations on the above, but the most successful books tend to fall within these guidelines. Like any "rules" of writing, they are meant to provide a framework within which infinite stories can be told. And like all rules, it's only after you've mastered them can you begin to break them.
Copyright © 2001 Children's Book Insider, LLC
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com.