Question: What do all the books and book series listed below have in common?
- The Fables of Aesop,
- Watership Down by Richard Adams,
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell,
- The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame,
- Babar (the elephant) series, by Jean De Brunhoff,
- The World of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter,
- Doctor Dolittle Series by Hugh Lofting,
- Animal Farm by George Orwell,
- Little Grey Rabbit Series by Alison Uttley,
- The Black Stallion by Walter Farley,
- Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
- Call of the Wild by Jack London,
- Brambly Hedge Series by Jill Barklem
- or the more recent books by Julia Donaldson
Answer: They can all be classed or categorized as animal stories or tales.
Those in the list above are just a few of the vast number of children's books, classic and modern, that could be classed as an animal story. One definition of an 'animal story' is: 'Fictional and nonfictional children's texts that feature animal characters as their primary protagonists, either in realistic or fantasy settings.' It is said to be a traditional form of allegorical writing. Often these writings are used to portray a deeper or hidden moral meaning. It appears that having animal characters has been used as a way to tell stories for centuries, starting with oral folk tales and fables. Some would even point to religious texts as examples.
Why use animals, we may ask?
As children, we often have pets and/or a love of animals and the natural world, so using animals as characters is a good teaching method which keeps us engaged and can possibly make some subjects more palatable when we are young.
Alluded to earlier was the different methods that authors may use in their approach to using animals as characters in their stories. Usually stories fall into one of two categories, either realistic or fantasy, although it may be argued that there are some animal stories that could be seen as hybrid, somewhat crossing over the two categories.
Normally, animals in the fantasy category are given human qualities in the way that they think and act as humans i.e. walking, talking, fully clothed, with complex reasonings, sense of right and wrong and similar societal structures. These personifications or anthropomorphisms are especially common in children's literature, a notable example being the animal tales of Beatrix Potter.
In the realistic animal story, the animals are allowed to retain their own natural traits, behaviours and qualities. They are seen as more 'animal' than human, even though they may still be telling us a story. An example from the above list could be The Black Stallion by Walter Farley.
Whichever method an author employs in their use of animals as characters, it can make us wonder - would we react the same way if a human was used as the protagonist in the story instead? When I was thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that these stories would probably not have held the same enjoyment for us in their reading. On reflection perhaps, by using the animals to tell a human story, it can make us more sympathetic or empathetic to the situation or the character themselves. Or maybe it allows us to investigate and question ourselves as humans, to think about our own behaviours and actions.
However, either way, if you love or loathe animal stories, it is probably safe to say that they are here to stay and will continue to be used as tools for children's education, entertainment and enjoyment. Indeed, it would probably be difficult to get through childhood and not hear or read an animal story of some kind.
Contributed by Joanne
(Published 26th Jan 2021)