Date : March 10, 2019
Talking Animals: Anthropomorphism In Children’s Literature
Have you ever wondered why so many books for kids choose to use talking animals, rather than people, as the central characters? Anthropomorphism in children’s literature helps create charming, memorable protagonists, but it’s also a powerful educational tool that’s been used since the earliest people told stories.
If I could talk to the animals
Anthropomorphism is the name for the process of assigning human traits to non-human entities, and it has a long and lively presence in children’s literature. From dancing dogs to wily wolves, cars to candelabras, popular texts for children rely heavily on non-human dialogue. The reasons for this are both historical and psychological.
Animal stories in history
Many ancient cultures generated their creation stories using the flora and fauna of their surroundings as touchstones. These were stories for all members of a community, however, not necessarily for children.
Printed books for children, in the British and European tradition, began to appear in the mid 1600s. According to the British Library, the first picture book with animals as characters is the 1659 title Orbis sensualium pictus. This uses animal references to encourage children to mimic animal sounds as a means of learning the alphabet – an early phonics textbook, if you like.
Fictional children’s stories intended for amusement as well as education did not appear on the literary horizon until well into the 18th century. This coincided with a general re-evaluation of what it meant to be a child, in line with the emergence of the first ‘middle classes’, compulsory primary education and a desire for people across all levels of society to enjoy ‘leisure time’. These social developments opened the door for all kinds of new moral stories for children – and picture books were teaching opportunities.
The 18th and 19th centuries also saw a surge in naturalists avidly discovering and classifying new species of birds and animals from the colonial outposts. Children’s books of the time reflect this keen interest in the ‘personality’ of animals.
So, while history delivered the perfect conditions for the inclusion of animals as lead characters in children’s books, it was educational psychology that kept them there.
The psychology of animal stories
Children’s books exist for several purposes: mainly literacy education, moral education and pleasure. The most popular are a smart combination of all three – offering the pleasure of an engaging story, with an adult-pleasing lesson or two, and an underlying benefit of literacy enhancement. May Gibbs’ creative tales are a stellar example of this type of three-pronged impact.
Animals as characters, therefore, can bring silliness and incongruity, making a story more enjoyable. But they also add a degree of emotional distance for the reader, which is important when the story message is personal, painful or powerful.
“Having animals do the acting and mistake-making allows the face-saving emotional distance often needed to be able to join the conversation,” say scholars Burke & Copenhaver. When the Three Little Pigs lose house after house, we roll along with the rhyme; the same situation involving homeless children is far less palatable. The Ugly Duckling draws gentle empathy, whilst ‘The Ugly Child’ would be frightening and confronting.
Many children’s stories also use the trope of absent adults as a strategy. Disney tales include orphans a-plenty. Blyton sends The Famous Five off on camping adventures so they can learn from each other away from the gaze of moralising adults. This story device is balanced, however, by watchful animals. Disney’s anthropomorphised woodland creatures follow their wards around, offering wisdom and comfort. Even the fab Five would have come unstuck without Timmy the dog by their sides!
Animals characters make life-lessons easier
If you’re sharing stories with children, including the beautiful May Gibbs collection, the tradition of anthropomorphism in children’s literature makes a terrific talking point. Children’s books with animal characters are often deceptively simple in their nature, whilst in fact containing highly influential content. Unfortunately for well-meaning adults, a lesson delivered by a lively lizard may hit home with greater force than a parental teaching moment!
Contribution By Dr Lara
Dr Lara’s PhD is in Australian Literature and she’s a passionate advocate of bringing the best of Australian literary culture to the next generation.