Little Darlings: Should your picture book characters be animals or children?
By Heather Tekavec
Animals are rampant in children’s literature. From fabled foxes to TV star turtles, authors love using animals to tell stories. If you ask the average adult why so many books are written with animal characters, they’ll likely suggest it’s because kids love animals, which is completely true—but it’s not the whole story. Anthropomorphism abounds in children’s literature for many excellent reasons.
But does that mean that all children’s picture books need to be set in farmyards or oceans? Not at all. Birthday Suit by Olive Senior would lose some punch with animals that naturally live in their “birthday suits.” And Drew Daywalt's The Day the Crayons Quit definitely needed crayons to play the lead. Some stories just demand to be told by particular characters. But many stories don’t, and you get to decide.
So how do you know when to pull out your inner Dr. Dolittle? Start by understanding the benefits of different types of picture book characters.
Using Animal Characters in Picture Books
Not all animal books are alike. Some animal characters act just like… well… animals. They live in their natural habitat, eat species-specific foods, and don’t wear pajamas or do yoga.
At the other end of the spectrum are well-loved books like Arthur by Marc Brown and Franklin the Turtle by Paulette Bourgeois, which take anthropomorphism to the highest level. Both Arthur and Franklin are animals that live in a house, go to school, and ride bicycles. They could easily have been written with human characters. But both have been turned into popular television shows, so it obviously works.
In between those extremes, you’ll find every degree of anthropomorphism. Tacky the Penguin, by Helen Lestor, lives in the arctic with other penguins and plays penguin-ish games, but he also wears clothes. A Horse Named Steve, by Kelly Collier, doesn’t wear clothes, gallops like a horse, sniffs things, and wants to be like other horses. But then he’s seen tying a gold horn onto his head with his hoofs. And he definitely has human-like emotions. In some stories, animals and people even talk to each other—If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, for example. There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about writing animal characters, but before turning all your characters into possums and hippos, consider the following benefits of each.
Good Reasons to Use Animals Characters
#1: Animals Have No Age
Have you ever wondered how old Mo Willem’s Piggy and Elephant are? To a three-year-old, they’re three; to a seven-year-old, they’re seven; to a mother, they are all her children at once… and maybe her husband, too! Removing the need for a specific age creates a story that’s relatable to a broader audience.
Ageless characters also give an author more freedom within the story. Characters can be out alone at night, talk to strangers, and eat through “one piece of chocolate cake, one strawberry ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake and a slice of watermelon” as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar proved.
Animals can also behave in ways that we wouldn’t want to condone in children—or humans in general. The Three Little Pigs would have been a very different story—and considerably less popular— if Big Bad Wolf had been an angry old man beating down the door of a child.
#2: Animals Don’t Need Parents (or other responsible adults)
I’m a big fan of showing healthy family relationships in children’s stories—and many books have done it well—but sometimes parents can interfere with, more than assist in, the movement of the story. This became real to me when my picture book, Arnold the Super-ish Hero, was picked up by an entertainment company to make into a preschool television program.
Arnold, who is ageless in the book, needed a viable age for TV. And he had to be young enough to appeal to the target audience of preschoolers. But the producers didn’t feel it was appropriate to have a young child running around the city without adult supervision. At the same time, he’s a superhero—he can’t have parents hovering! The dilemma was eventually solved, but it reinforced that we live in a time when publishers (and producers) are becoming increasingly wary of publishing anything that may appear inappropriate or insensitive.
We don’t want to leave children with the fear that there aren’t responsible adults that will protect them (or their favorite characters) from danger. But at the same time, grown-ups stepping in to solve the problem misses the point of positive “growth” in the main character. A child can’t be a hero in a bullying story if Mom and the teacher worked out a healthy ”get-along plan.” That’s a good life lesson; it’s not an engaging story. But a little pig outsmarting a wolf can inspire a child to work harder and think smarter. And the real responsible adult in the child’s life can use the engaging story to start a discussion.
Another thing to consider is how difficult it is to have a parent involved without making the story sound preachy or overly sentimental. Sometimes, Dad or Grandma just can’t help themselves from tacking a trite or gushy life lesson on at the end, rather than letting the story do the heavy lifting by creating a natural “aha” moment for the young reader.
Of course, if Grandma is bringing cookies, like in Pat Hutchins’ The Doorbell Rang… well that’s another story!
#3: Animals Have Fantastic Features
One of the best things about animal characters is that animals, by nature, give a writer so much to work with. Franklin the Turtle was afraid of the dark so he couldn’t go to sleep in his shell; Tiny T. Rex and the Impossible Hug, by Jonathan Stutzman has the T-Rex’s super-short arms preventing him from hugging his sad friend. Kangaroo pouches, lazy sloths, stink bugs… the animal kingdom is rich with unique animal features, behaviors, and natures that can enhance your story, bringing extra humor, creativity, or educational value.
#4: Animals Create Emotional Distance
Young readers sometimes have trouble separating reality from fiction, so scary scenes that reflect real fears can be upsetting to sensitive children. And while children may not be able to express it, they might reject books that make them uncomfortable. For this reason, many authors use animal characters to share a message more safely. In my first book, Storm is Coming, readers experienced a storm through the eyes of animals who see weather as normal and harmless. It wasn’t the lightning and wind that scared them, but this terrifying monster named “Storm” that everyone kept talking about. The animals’ comical ignorance frees children to safely watch a storm from a different perspective.
#5: Animals “Stick”
I did a short, informal survey asking ten people which one picture book character sticks in their mind. Out of the ten, one named a human character (Amelia Bedelia); the rest were animals. I was surprised by those results, but when I tried to think of all the human characters that were overlooked, it was difficult to name any. I read countless Robert Munsch stories to my preschool students, but I couldn’t pick one single character out of a lineup. Human names don’t seem to stick as easily as the animal characters. In fact, the only human character I could name was also Amelia Bedelia! This may be because animal names are often either painfully basic (Dog, Pigeon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar) or delightfully memorable (Chrysanthemum, Tacky the Penguin, Walter the Farting Dog).
So does “stickiness” matter? Hard to say. Robert Munsch would probably tell you no, and I’m sure his royalty statements would agree. But if nothing else, these survey results support #6.
#6: Kids Love Animals
Kids love animals. The end.
Using Human Characters in Picture Books
Human characters are a little simpler to explain, but there are a few things worth noting. Most human characters in children’s books are children. But not all. Some books use adult main characters and do it very well, and some use ageless characters to get around the problems expressed above. Oliver Jeffers has several books where characters’ ages are hard to peg, such as This Moose Belongs to Me. Regardless of the age of your characters, your story will stand a much better chance in this current market if you present a diverse range of races, abilities, and gender. Publishers aren’t calling for, at this time, diversity in religion, body size/shape, or family economic status, which is unfortunate, but maybe over time that will come, too.
Good Reasons to Use Human Characters
#1: Publishers Want More Human Characters
Publishing goes in waves; sometimes the industry begs for message-driven stories, and when they get too many of those, they start to crave something that’s just a whole lot of fun. Currently, parents and teachers are looking for stories to help children wade through the many changes, issues, and fears that they are faced with in our ever-changing world. In some cases, it’s just good sense to use human characters to make the message crystal clear. I recognize that this contradicts reason #4 above (animals create emotional distance), but there is an argument for both.
Will your story be better received with realistic children that readers can relate to or with animals that provide a bit of safe distance? I think the one key is to look at the age of your intended audience. School children are more likely to learn from a realistic telling while also understanding it’s just a story; preschoolers still think Barney is real.
Based on this current trend, some publishers don’t even want books with animal characters, so if you have a publisher in mind, check their online catalog to see if you can find any monkeys, bears, or hedgehogs in the lineup. If not, there’s a good chance they won’t want your sloth story either.
#2: Children Want to See Kids Like Themselves
Whether “like themselves” means in appearance, lifestyle, or experience, children often want to see themselves in a story. This is also one of the reasons why the current publishing wave is turning to human characters. Representation has become an increasingly important ideal in books, and publishers want to have all their bases covered.
So while an animal character can be relatable to children of many ages, races, abilities, and genders, human characters can target more specific needs of readers who benefit from relating to the characters. The trick is understanding what the goal of your particular story is. Animals can be very versatile and useful, but don’t shy away from human children if your story has the potential of reaching into a child’s heart and helping them feel seen. And because this trend is growing, there’s no need to turn your bike-riding, school-attending, house-dwelling character into an aardvark just because kids love animals.
There will always be room for whales and unicorns, but publishers need to have enough books with a broad representation so that all children can find themselves somewhere in the pages.
#3: There is (Sometimes) Less to Research to Do
Not in every case, of course. If you’re writing a book about a human child traveling the world or disabling a nuclear bomb, there is plenty to research. But if research is not your thing, it’s completely realistic to think you can write a story about Tom and Betty in the playground without ever opening up Google—or at least not too many times. As soon as you introduce animals, however, it’s very likely that you’ll need to look up details on their habitat, what they eat, and some of their unique features.
I once wrote a funny story with a variety of birds. I thought I was being proactive by carefully ensuring that all these birds lived in the same region. What I wasn’t careful about was completely understanding the nature of “flying south for the winter.” Unfortunately, that was a pretty big part of the punch line. That story never sold.
#4: Moral Lessons May Translate More Easily
Some studies are showing that children are more likely to learn and apply moral lessons—sharing, kindness, honesty—learned from human characters than from animals. I believe this may be true in many cases. I think, however, there are more factors to consider, including how many times the story is heard, if the adult reader follows up with a conversation, the learning style of the child, and the story itself. The lessons from The Tortoise and the Hare, The Little Engine That Could, and The Elephant and Ant have always stuck in my mind, despite the lack of humans. I would want to see more studies on this, but in the meantime, it’s safe to say that using human children rather than animals won’t be a bad thing if your goal is to share a moral lesson.
Animals Or Children?—The Bottom Line
I did another informal survey: I looked up “funniest picture books” (which, I admit, is very subjective), and I pulled up the first list. In it, 75% of the books were animal characters (with a few monsters, as well.) Then I looked up a list of “meaningful stories with powerful messages” and just a little less than 75% were human characters. Possibly, that’s part of the answer, but clearly, there are no right or wrong answers, only lots of viable options to spark your creativity.
Animal characters or children? Both have been well represented in deeply loved, long-lasting, heartwarming, laugh-out-loud, and inspiring books. Tell your story in the way that makes the most sense. Or try it different ways! Whether you’re offering bicycle-riding aardvarks, bunny-like bunnies, or racially-diverse children, if you can write a story that develops a child’s love for reading and shares a little something about their world, you’ve accomplished great things.
Heather Tekavec, Associate Editor
Heather is the award-winning author of fourteen books for children and teens. She has won awards and honours and been reprinted in thirteen languages, but the most fun was seeing her books featured in Macdonald’s Happy Meals across Canada. She took her editorial training through SFU (Vancouver) and Queen’s University (Toronto) and works with books for children, youth, and adults. Speaking in schools, tutoring English, and working in libraries have kept her engaged with readers of all ages. She loves helping writers build dynamic characters that tell their own stories and trimming away the extraneous bits that bog a story down.