There’s a fair amount of variation in the use of talking animals in stories. Sometimes they’re basically people in suits, going about everyday, human tasks like buying groceries or facing bullies. Some authors imagine what it might be like to be the animals they describe, and the story depends upon elements that are unique to the animal(s) involved. Sometimes the animals interact with human beings, and other times they’re given their own worlds in which to play out their stories. In each case, what the use of talking animals contributes is a sense of “otherness,” though even this otherness is used in different ways, most commonly to offer an alternate perspective or to introduce new opportunities for humour. This week’s Ten explores some of the ways in which authors have explored the question: What if animals could talk?
Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye
The first in Hoeye’s Hermux Tantamoq series, Time Stops for No Mouse draws the reader into a world in which animals (mostly various types of rodents) live as humans — exploring the world, fighting injustice and, in Hermux’s case, solving mysteries. The writing is lovely and the story quite engaging. In fact, the books are likely to be at least as interesting to older teens and adults as to children, since the stories take place in a mostly-adult society.
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
There might well be fewer talking animal characters in this prequel than in any of the other Narnia stories. However, in depicting the creation of Narnia, the novel is relatively unique in offering some explanation for why the animals (or some of them, at least) are able to speak.
Bookweird by Paul Glennon
In Bookweird, the first of a trilogy, Norman Jespers-Vilnius not only falls into stories, but finds that his presence there starts changing the stories around. One of the more interesting stories involves politics and war among animals in a medieval kingdom setting.
The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman
The start of another trilogy, in which each human being in the protagonist’s world has an animal companion, which is changeable at first, but becomes fixed and reflective of the individual’s personality when he or she reaches adulthood. Other books have used animal companions to highlight portions of a person’s inner self (for example, Winnie the Pooh). In Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, the animals seem to be a real, external extension of their people’s souls, to the extent that losing the animal causes irreparable damage.
Where’s My Mom? written by Julia Donaldson illustrated by Axel Scheffler
This one depends entirely on the unique characteristics of the animals involved. A butterfly helps a young monkey to look for his mother, but the butterfly’s very different perspective leads to a series of misunderstandings.
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The story of a heroic young mouse determined to make a difference in the big wide (mostly human) world. DiCamillo demonstrates a lot of respect for young readers, both in the complexity of the story and in the style of writing.
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling is a controversial author now, strongly associated with imperialism. The Mowgli stories are still worth reading, though, not only for their universal themes of growing up and belonging (among other things), but also for the insight they offer into how people in another time saw the world. See Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book for a re-imagining of the story.
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
James escapes his two dreadful aunts and discovers a new family with the bugs who inhabit a giant peach. As is the case with most Roald Dahl stories, this one offers plenty for parents and teachers to discuss with young readers.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
A man describes his encounter with a small boy who mysteriously appears in the midst of the desert. The child tells him all about his exploration of different planets, where his observations of and conversations with different people (and a couple of talking animals) have helped to expand his understanding of life and being.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
A graphic novel for older readers, Maus recounts one family’s experiences as Polish Jews in 1940s Europe. Different nationalities are depicted as different types of animals, defamiliarising the story and highlighting its horrors afresh.
Check out another article published recently about anthropomorphised animals in children’s literature: Growing Up with Anthropomorphism