Animals in Children’s Books

The Role of Animals in Children’s Literature

I remember the first time I read A Cricket in Times Square.  I read it to my children, who were enraptured from the start.  If you haven’t read George Selden’s masterpiece, do so immediately!  It is the kind of book that finds you holding your breath.  It is the kind of book that enchants with all the magic of childhood.  It is also a book that relies heavily on the classic cultural depictions of animals, to whom we attribute great innocence (do we not use the phrase “bright eyed and bushy tailed to describe the young and inexperienced?) as well as great humanity.  Sometimes, as in the case of Charlotte’s Web, animals are more human than human beings themselves.  They value the life of the smallest, runtiest pig.  By no accident, Fern also values that life that an adult may well overlook.  Children and animals in literature present a special, unforgettable morality.

The story of the cricket in times square is simple:  a cricket accidentally finds himself on a train from his woodland home in Connecticut to New York City.  When he hops off the train, he is nearly swallowed up by the riot and noise of Grand Central Station!  Poor cricket, who only ever wanted to sing in his glade, and sleep under the quiet moonlight.

Luckily, our hero is rescued by a cat, a mouse, and a little boy who is minding his father’s newspaper stand.  To the cricket, the city is most unnatural.  At the same time, he recognizes its harsh beauty.  The lights and the noise are their own sort of energetic music.  The crowdedness of the streets brings out the best, as well as the worst, in people and creatures.  After all, only in New York can a cat and a mouse be the closest of friends.

To my children, who had not seen New York yet, the city must have seemed unnatural too.  They were experiencing it through the eyes of a cricket.

And yet, the lost cricket’s vision of the big city is not so different from the child’s.  Children feel small.  They are as much at the mercy of the world as the little cricket, whose world was swept away because he fell asleep on what he didn’t know was a train.  The world acts upon children and they are helpless to its whims.  Like many of the beloved animals of children’s literature–the mice, rabbits, pigs, and cats–they live on the margins.  It is terrifying to be a child in the great big world.

Of course, to be a child is also delightful.  From Rat and Mole of the Wind in the Willows, to Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web, the marvelous is everywhere.  A river running, a flower blooming, a spider spinning–these seemingly small things are appreciated by the child as they rarely are by adults.  Animals and children share a perspective in literature.  When the child opens A Cricket in Times Square, he greets New York with eyes very much like his own.  He encounters the story from a morality very much like his own.  The child knows better than anyone that kindness is due to all creatures, great and small.

He began learning this lesson from Aesop’s Fables, and children’s literature continues to use the animal as the moral compass of a children’s story.  Who can forget the lessons of Black Beauty, Shiloh, or The Yearling?  These books are not War and Peace–their perspective is much narrower.  Nevertheless, the emotional and moral questions they raise are just as monumental, if not as complex, as those raised in our greatest adult novels.

Historical fiction does not feature so many animals as other types of children’s books, perhaps because writers in this genre (myself included) are inclined to take their projects a little too seriously. :)   After all, the events recorded in our stories are not fantasies or fables–they actually happened.  Are the events diminished when a mouse is narrating?  If they are, then we have grown too cynical.  If we forget about the magic animals bring to books, we lose an important tool for drawing children into the worlds we write about.

Do you know of any other works of historical fiction starring animal protagonists?  If so, I’d love to hear about them!  Are you writing a novel from an animal’s point of view?  What do you think non-human creatures bring to the table, when they appear in children’s books?




Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Middle-Grade Novels, Thoughts on Children's Literature

10 Responses to Animals in Children’s Books

  1. I love this topic and have read all the books you referenced here. As a child I was drawn to animals in books. One of my favorites was Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. While not historical fiction, it is such a fun story about growing up, trust and unlikely friendships.

    • Oh my children loved The Mouse and the Motorcycle! Thanks for reminding me! I will have to add it to my read-again pile. I’ve been looking at animals in all cases. You’ve also just reminded me of Stuart Little! (So many wonderful mice in children’s literature…)


  2. Debbie

    Fantastic post, Jewell. I truly believe that most of my current worldview was shaped by the animals in the books I read as a child, even when they weren’t officially the protagonists. Two of the most enduring books I’ve ever read were “Sounder” by William H. Armstrong and “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls. (I think the latter gave me my first taste of literary catharsis, since I read it over and over and cried my eyes out every time.) Oh! And I can’t forget Watership Down. I’ve read that Richard Adams based the struggles the rabbits face in that marvelous book to his experience in WWII.
    I especially love non-human protagonists because such stories ignore ridiculous, human-fabricated hierarchies and present all creatures as the full and equal world citizens that I believe them to be. (I think most children feel this way until their culture trains them to think otherwise.)

    • I completely agree that culture creates a false dichotomy between us and the animal world. Children and children’s books are so connected to it…I remember feeling very connected to animals as a child. I read Where the Red Fern Grows a few months ago now, and it still packs a punch. It always makes me cry my eyes out too! And who could forget Watership Down? That is a truly great book. There’s a great article in the Horn Book about the relationship between animals and children’s books that hinges on vegetarianism. I think it’s pretty interesting. Maybe you’d like to check it out!

      • Debbie

        Oh, what a fantastic article! Really fascinating, especially the part about the five categories of moral behavior that we are born with the capacity to develop and our tendency to populate children’s books with non-human protagonists who teach us ‘humane’ behavior. Thanks for recommending it, Jewell. Ms. Armstrong’s long view of history fills me with hope for our future.

  3. I love having animals ‘rule the roost’ in stories of all kinds. We learn so much from our furry friends, whether they are being themselves or take on our human characteristics. I have fun using them in some of my poems. There is a picture book that I’ve read to my BookPALS kids about a dog who has a party that becomes known all over the world and the kids love it and imagine their own dog in the process. Let the animals reign or at least live side-by-side in magical fantasy.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I love how your kids imagine their dog in place of the dog in the book. Animals offer such a wonderful invitation to engage our imaginations for the sheer delight of them. And I like the sound of that book! What’s the title?


      • The book is Stanley’s Party by Linda Bailey and illustrated by Bill Slavin. There are several Stanley books and the first grade students I read to are perfect for Stanley’s shenanigans. Love hearing about all of these books, old and new, and have lots more to add to my reading list!

        I tend to read a lot of animal books to my students and am always looking for recommendations. Thanks for your fabulous blog.

  4. Pingback: Ten Tips: Writing for Kids | Lanesha Says...

  5. Chris Durmick

    Animals as innocents are the perfect everyman for most kids and I’m surprised there aren’t more historical stories told through their eyes. I’m trying to compile a list of titles with animal protagonists set in richly factual historical backgrounds, like “Wee and the Wright Brothers.” There seem to be plenty in the Magic Tree House vein where kids are the protagonists, but not so much animals. Any others?

    As a recommendation, I offer “Knee Deep in Thunder” a girl-shrunk-to-insect-size tale (like James and the Giant Peach) I first read in fourth grade. The animal characters are fun.

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