Craft Book Read-Along: My Problem with Animals

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I’m plowing ahead into section 3 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul but before I do, I want to go back and talk about a point mentioned in chapter 5, about animal characters.

When is it a good idea to use animal characters instead of people?

Animal characters give your listeners an opportunity to distance themselves from the characters, especially when they are dealing with issues that might be too threatening and scary.

Brilliantly stated. And so true. Imagine the Three Little Pigs as a story featuring three children and a scary adult who is chasing them. That would be frightening for a 4-year-old…and maybe even for the mom reading the story.

I would go a bit further and add that animal characters enable a writer to put her main character into situations that real children don’t (or shouldn’t) experience, and to come up with solutions that real children couldn’t (or shouldn’t) carry out. An animal main character can strike out on her own, converse freely with strangers, go to the store and home again, all on her own without adult supervision or help.

Confession: I have never written a story with an animal main character.

I didn’t realize I had a hang-up about animal characters until I read chapter 5. I enjoy reading books with animal main characters. Many of the books I’ve reviewed on this site feature animals. But for some reason, I have never written one.

However…I have occasionally gotten ‘stuck’ in a story, when I can’t think of an interesting and also realistic way for my child MC to solve his or her own problem. Some of my stories have too many parents hovering in the background, politely making suggestions, or at least supervising the goings-on, and kids who are too hampered by the confines of their own abilities and the necessity of staying safe in the world. If you’re a real kid and you get lost in the woods, you stay put until your parents find you. Period. End of story. If you’re an animal…well, maybe you climb the tallest tree you can find. Maybe you ask a gang of crows for help. Maybe you take up with a couple of woodchucks and live in a burrow until spring.

Maybe it’s time to not only get rid of the parents, but get rid of the humans altogether.

What about you? Do your stories feature humans, animals, or both?

15 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: My Problem with Animals

  1. Both. And the toughest of all are the ones where the animals and humans coexist. Does the animal talk? Does the human understand what it says? Can they interact as equals? Does the animal just think it’s ideas? Ugh!

  2. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Carrie. Lately I’ve been tending towards animals in my stories because they lend themselves to settings and situations that often aren’t as whimsical feeling. My first to be published picture book features animals and a human, but only the human speaks. The animals make sounds. It’s hard, I think, to mix both if both are to speak. But even that will work if the setting is magical enough.

  3. The nice thing about animals is that then using them can make the story more universal. It’s no longer a story about the blond girl it’s the polar bear cub that gets into situations that any child can relate to. You can even talk about race w/o it being about race but more on differences and similarities etc. etc.

  4. Thanks for the great, informative post, Carrie! I definitely need to read this book. I met Ann Whitford Paul several years ago and heard her speak, and she really knows her stuff! My only PBs involving animals are nonfiction. I would like to try using animals at some point, though. My favorite PBs involving animals are Karma Wilson’s BEAR series. SO cute!!

  5. I haven’t written an animal story either per se, except, I did write a story using insects, if that counts. And someone at Rate Your Story suggested not to mix the human with the insects, and so I took out the human and replaced him with another bug. Maybe I should try an animal story sometime.

    • That’s interesting Tina. I wonder if it would be OK if the people spoke to each other, and the animals spoke to each other (out of earshot of the people) but there were no cross-species conversation. I’m trying to think of a book like that

      Click Clack Moo is kind of a cool version of that because, while the animals don’t actually speak to the farmer, they do write notes. Somehow having the communication one step removed that way is very humorous and not at all off-putting.

  6. Good question! I’ve written a few stories with an animal mc (and a couple of monsters as well). I’ve heard elsewhere that anthropomorphism is sometimes frowned upon, but I’m not sure why. Have you heard anything about when you shouldn’t use an animal as a main character?

    • That’s a good question, Hannah. I haven’t heard anything like that, but I would think there should be some good reason for the characters being animals instead of people. If they are completely interchangeable, then maybe the writer is missing an opportunity?

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