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Children and anthropomorphic animals

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I'm interested in getting a broad sense of how children feel about anthropomorphic animal stories (not interested in publishing houses policies--that's in another thread).

I've been talking lately with a lot of children and their parents. Without exception, every child seven or under I know likes talking animals, and all of their parents do, too. When I tell them that there are people at some of the book companies who don't like talking animals, they are perplexed, their only comment being, "Why?" What surprised me was that not only very young kids like the anthropo stories, the 5-7s do as well.


Best,
Gatz
#1 - August 02, 2009, 03:38 PM
SurfYourOwnMind.com, children's creativity blog currently in development.

In my experience an animal character is appealing when s/he is an animal for a reason and is true to his/her animal nature. While talking animals are usually cute and funny, the most successful ones are more than just thinly-veiled humans; their animal characteristics are what make them interesting and lovable. I'm thinking of Kevin Henkes's mice, for example, which are child-like but also mouse-like. This is also true of Peter Rabbit - his child-ness is what makes us root for him but his rabbit-ness is what makes him truly memorable. James Marshall's George and Martha are another perfect example of characters who are adored not only because they act like humans, but also because they sometimes don't act like humans. I hope this makes sense!

Anna

Just wanted to add: I was thinking about my George and Martha example and I realized that while those characters certainly don't always act like humans, they don't really act like hippos either. So that's an example that's a little separate from the other two, but I think they still work as characters because of the genuine friendship between them and because of the acknowledgment in the books that they are not actually human (like in the story with the hot air balloon when the text says that George wanted to be "the first of his species to fly").
#2 - August 02, 2009, 03:58 PM
« Last Edit: August 02, 2009, 04:35 PM by annastan »
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When I tell them that there are people at some of the book companies who don't like talking animals, they are perplexed, their only comment being, "Why?"

I think talking animals are like rhyming picture books -- it's not truly that they don't like them, it's that they see way, way, too many crappy ones, so it's easier just to say, "don't send this."

I'd point to Bonny Becker's award-winning and best-selling Bear series (as in, A Visitor for Bear) -- which has at least 2 more coming -- as proof.


#3 - August 02, 2009, 05:34 PM
The Farwalker Trilogy
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I agree with Joni, wholeheartedly.
#4 - August 02, 2009, 05:50 PM
Making metaphors out of molehills for over thirty years.

I also agree with Joni. And I remembered that there are some words of wisdom about anthropomorphic animals and rhyming pb's in Olga Litowinsky's It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World.

#5 - August 02, 2009, 06:10 PM
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These are interesting ideas, especially the observation that in great animal stories the animals are not just disguised humans.

I’m wondering whether there isn’t another reason why kids might like anthro animal books. If you take a story and tell it with a human main character, then take the same story and tell it with an animal MC, the animal story will (other things being equal) be more appealing to a child because it will seem less lesson-y or message-y, somehow. This is just a conjecture. Does it have any validity?
#6 - August 02, 2009, 08:27 PM
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jeanne k

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This is a bit long and rambling, but bear with me if you care to.

I was just thinking about this topic, but in terms of videos instead of books. My children have discovered the Backyardigans. We are very picky when it comes to the shows our kids watch and at first glance, I wasn't a fan of the type of animation, but I have to admit, the show is growing on me.

Anyway, I was wondering why the characters are animals and not humans, and all I could come up with is the creators thought it would be cuter that way.

Now, tonight, I was reading a book to my daughters and the characters were animals (think Frog and Toad, but not nearly as good) and again, I found myself wondering why the characters were animals and not humans. They didn't have any "animally" characteristics. Yet, my kids really like the story. One thing that struck me was that having animals as the main characters allows authors and publishers to have adult characters (characters that live by themselves and do more adult things...like cook and clean and make decisions for themselves) while sidestepping the whole "kids don't like books with adult main characters" thing.

So, for example in "A Visitor for Bear" (which I love), a child couldn't live alone, making breakfast and tea and a cozy fire. A grumpy adult human might not interest a child, but a grumpy adult bear does.

That may explain one of the functions of the talking animal in children's lit.

Which, of course, is not the case with the Backyardigans. But I have to say, Pablo the Penguin IS pretty cute and I'm always in favor of a talking, singing hippo. Maybe it's because of my fond childhood memories of Henrietta from the New Zoo Review. I guess kids like talking animals.
 :eeyore
#7 - August 02, 2009, 09:46 PM
« Last Edit: August 02, 2009, 09:54 PM by jeanne k »


Now, tonight, I was reading a book to my daughters and the characters were animals (think Frog and Toad, but not nearly as good) and again, I found myself wondering why the characters were animals and not humans. They didn't have any "animally" characteristics. Yet, my kids really like the story. One thing that struck me was that having animals as the main characters allows authors and publishers to have adult characters (characters that live by themselves and do more adult things...like cook and clean and make decisions for themselves) while sidestepping the whole "kids don't like books with adult main characters" thing.


This really makes sense to me. Thanks, Jeanne K.

Gatz
#8 - August 02, 2009, 11:07 PM
SurfYourOwnMind.com, children's creativity blog currently in development.

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Jeanne...I was all set to comment, but you captured much of what I was planning to say. How'd you do that? :)

I have a pb coming out called Mr. Duck Means Business which features a duck who goes a little haywire when the other barnyard animals pay an unexpected visit to his otherwise peaceful pond. In a veryveryveryvery early draft, the story wasn't about an uppity duck at all. It was about an old lady who didn't want kids traipsing through her lawn on their way to the park. Miss Matlida Means Business received some nice rejection letters. But Mr. Duck Means Business, which has the same underlying story, ended up in a multiple bidding situation.

Anyway, by the time I got rid of Miss Matilda and replaced her with some water fowl, the story DEMANDED to feature either a duck or goose.

Soooo...with my pbs anyway...if some anthro stuff appears, those characters HAVE TO be those particular animals. A bonus:  their animal-ness allows for more flexibility. Animal characters can get away with doing stuff typical kid characters wouldn't be able to do.
 
#9 - August 02, 2009, 11:49 PM
« Last Edit: August 03, 2009, 12:43 AM by tammi »
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As you've probably gathered from my threads, I tend to write mainly anthropomorphic stories for the most part, but recently strayed away because I thought most considered outdated these days.

The majority of my stories are 5 to 7 year olds and I found that if they can picture a character in a certain way/scene, it doesn't matter what it is.  Animal or otherwise.  I'll continue to write them.  Me and humans don't work well.  Adult animal characters seem to make great role models.
#10 - August 03, 2009, 05:52 AM

Animal characters can get away with doing stuff typical kid characters wouldn't be able to do.
 

Tammi, this is a great point.

Thanks for sharing the info about Mr. Duck. It's startling and neat, the result of changing the MC from the old lady to the duck. I hope you have great success with the PB.

Gatz
#11 - August 03, 2009, 01:11 PM
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AndyJ

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Another benefit to think about is that animals are neutral from a ethnic standpoint, and sometimes even a gender standpoint. Taking it another step, a child may think that a toddler human character looks too young, but a childish animal is rarely "too young" looking for the reader.

Children like to relate to the characters, and will hunt for anything that they have in common, yet can quickly get discouraged by obvious differences. But they also inherently like animals, so you've removed any obvious racial, age, or gender blocker.

I think its wonderful (and important) to expose young children to as many cultures and nationalities as you can, but from an editor's financial standpoint, you're not excluding any group when you feature animals, and that's a good thing.

In another topic, read about how The Fraggles came about, it's really fascinating how Jim Henson attempted to single handedly (I say that loosely, there was so much talent he worked with) teach children peace and tolerance with one television show.



#12 - August 03, 2009, 01:53 PM

Barbara Eveleth

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Jim Henson was a friggin genius. An icon. And his work lives on.


I think anthropomorphism is okay (if done well) but I would not rely on it to be a hook.


And I KNOW there are editors who loathe it, probably because they see too much of it like yalve said.
#13 - August 04, 2009, 03:16 AM

And there lies the problem for me.  Some of my stories are good, but I am so shy of submitting them because they are anthropomorphic that I veered away from writing them and started with other characters.  It doesn't work.  They are all stuck in a folder, dieing to get out.
I think I write well.  But how do you gage that?  I never read them after! (well, rarely anyway)
#14 - August 04, 2009, 03:33 AM

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Simply write the best story you can. If it's irresistible, it will sell.
#15 - August 04, 2009, 07:18 AM
« Last Edit: August 04, 2009, 08:02 AM by tammi »
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My kids (3, 5 and 7) love great stories and great characters. That is probably just stating the obvious, but I don't think it matters much to them whether the characters are animals or not. Right now, their favorite picture book is Muncha Muncha Muncha, where the main character is an adult, and the bunnies act like, well, bunnies.  I think that if the author had chosen to make the main character an animal, my kids would still love it because it is a great story.
#16 - August 04, 2009, 07:44 AM
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There is so much that makes sense here. Another thread addressed this and the gender/national orgin was mentioned there too.

For me, when writing for young children, sometimes I want to put my MC in humorous circumstances. If the MC were human, the conflict may be perceived as harsh, but putting a make-believe walking talking animal through it comes off as funny. Disney's "Fantasia" is an example . . . I'll always laugh at the ballerina hippos. But if those were large humans, well, it may have been on the cruel side.

Snakes who want to become gymnasts, giraffes playing twister, a porcupine who wants to go to work in the balloon factory . . . those are some fun plays off traits and the imagery that comes to mind for illustrations is endless.
#17 - August 04, 2009, 07:47 AM
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Elephant ballet dancers, centipedes who become dance teachers, flying ostriches (although not in the conventional way).  I've a big folder of these guys gathering dust.  What do I do with them?  Should I just put them all in a retirement home?
#18 - August 04, 2009, 09:38 AM

jeanne k

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Editors buy talking animal books all the time. If they didn't, books stores and libraries (and my house) wouldn't full of them.
#19 - August 04, 2009, 10:39 AM

Hmm, true, but submitting them is the key.  I am simply a terrible sceptic and cynical.  I also talk too much and don't "do".  Which is why I think I'll get off the board and draft some letters for tomorrow.
"No talking animal stories" seem to slap me in the face everywhere I look. :writing3 :mad4 :paper
#20 - August 04, 2009, 12:20 PM

Thundering elephants,

I think you should start sending some of them out. Let us know if you have good news. We'll root for you.

Gatz
#21 - August 04, 2009, 12:46 PM
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jeanne k

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Send them out! What do you have to lose.

(Well, you could lose a bit of your mind waiting for responses, but that just part of being a writer, right?)
#22 - August 04, 2009, 01:21 PM

Won't lose my mind, I value what little of it I have.
I got a rejection yesterday, spent ages writing and when my computer gets better, I'll send out some more.

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Thanks
#23 - August 09, 2009, 08:39 AM

I suspect one reason why children's like talking animal stories overall is because they are (mostly) only seeing the very best of them. If you deluged a child with every talking animal story in the average slush pile, the kids wouldn't like them either. Because most of them are dreadful. Publishers are selecting stories not just because they have talking animals or don't have talking animals but because they are lively books that grab kids.

I think editors don't hate talking animals (even the ones that say they do). I think it's a numbers thing. In your slush pile, you have say...300 picture books. So most of them are talking animals and they rhyme and they mostlly stink. Say two hundred. Now if you could get rid of those two hundred in one swish of the wand....it would have to be very tempting to do so. Sure, you stand the chance of losiing, say....five really good talking animal books...but you're going to get rid of 195 that were really awful. So you wave the wand and hope the five good ones will eventually get an agent and come back in a way you have time to read. Then you can tackle the one hundred manuscripts that are prose and not-talking-animals. You toss out the serial killers, the stories designed to make children take their medicine, etc etc...but at least there's a chance of clearing through the slush pile before the GREEN CHANNEL finds out how much paper you're hoarding in all those manuscripts.
#24 - August 17, 2009, 05:19 AM
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I've heard that anthropomorphic stories are "a chance" from the slush pile, but one thing, who gets the job of sifting through that lot anyway?  And who decides?  I've got a lot of "probably slush" but I can't decide which I dare to send out.
#25 - August 18, 2009, 05:47 AM

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I've heard that anthropomorphic stories are "a chance" from the slush pile, but one thing, who gets the job of sifting through that lot anyway?  And who decides?  I've got a lot of "probably slush" but I can't decide which I dare to send out.

Just send them out already! You've got absolutely nothing to lose.
#26 - August 23, 2009, 06:00 PM

Rena

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Great thread!

My book, A New Job for Dilly is about a rat who goes searching for a job so he doesn't have to steal his favorite food. I guess that wouldn't be as interesting to a child if it was a human ...
#27 - September 02, 2009, 11:22 AM

Has anyone got experience of screeching cats?  I wrote an entire story based on my daft furry fiend, his screeching drives me potty.  I am considering becoming a complete plagiarist and changing my username to Thundercat in his honour.
Rena, if that story was about a human, you're right, it wouldn't be appealing.  I suppose in the same way that a child "attempting" to sing doesn't sound that interesting as opposed to cats.  My felines were screeching all through the story and I couldn't help looking at my cat.  He never shuts up.
I have 21 anthropomorphic stories and I really don't know where to send them.  "No talking animals" seems to slap in the face every time.  Any tips?
#28 - September 14, 2009, 07:26 AM

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I have 21 anthropomorphic stories and I really don't know where to send them.  "No talking animals" seems to slap in the face every time.  Any tips?

This is my advice--Just send them out already! Worst that can happen is El-Rejecto City.
#29 - September 14, 2009, 07:42 AM

Rena

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Has anyone got experience of screeching cats?  I wrote an entire story based on my daft furry fiend, his screeching drives me potty.  I am considering becoming a complete plagiarist and changing my username to Thundercat in his honour.
Rena, if that story was about a human, you're right, it wouldn't be appealing.  I suppose in the same way that a child "attempting" to sing doesn't sound that interesting as opposed to cats.  My felines were screeching all through the story and I couldn't help looking at my cat.  He never shuts up.
I have 21 anthropomorphic stories and I really don't know where to send them.  "No talking animals" seems to slap in the face every time.  Any tips?

My seven-year-old would love a story about a screeching cat. If it has cats in it, he wants to read it. Good luck with your stories.
#30 - September 17, 2009, 10:30 AM

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