by Rita Goldner
For decades I’ve had first-hand experience with anthropomorphizing animals, i.e. giving them human characteristics. I had a business making mascot costumes, mostly for fast food franchises. Whenever I could, I talked my clients into letting me design an animal mascot for them. I did the same thing with inanimate objects like hot dogs, ice cream cones and sundaes, tacos, and drinks of all shapes and sizes – with smiling faces, hands, and feet. Humanizing an object is called personification, although I didn’t know the term at the time. My agenda then was to help my clients appeal to a broader market by having a mascot that was neither gender-specific nor race-specific.
I have evolved into a different career, writing and illustrating picture books. Now my “clients” are young children, and I’m again anthropomorphizing and personifying characters in my stories. This time, my reason grows from dozens of workshops, online classes, and how-to books I’ve waded through, in an effort to perfect my craft. Most kid literature experts feel that seeing an animal character wrestling with a hard topic or coming to grips with conflicting emotions is easier for a young reader than directly addressing their own issues.
Furthermore, a non-human protagonist works well in a book that is a story-driven, action-packed adventure, because animals and personified objects can do what’s impossible for the readers to do without safety concerns, parental interference, and other boring rules and constraints. The non-human hero in a children’s book can also deliver a subtle message without sounding preachy. I, for one, feel that messages are less important than a great, fun story. Speaking of fun, animals and inanimate objects brought to life are so much more fun to draw!
This device is not new in the literary world. It was used in Aesop’s Fables and ancient mythologies, and more recently in Animal Farm by George Orwell and Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boule, for adult enjoyment. The function of literature through the ages has been, besides entertainment, to help readers validate their social norms, give meaning to their life experiences, interpret their feelings, and create a dialogue with self and friends. Ideally, they come to a better understanding of a situation or concept and adjust their own behavior accordingly. These goals are even more important for children.
The practice of using characters that weren’t people eventually found its way into writing for kids, which is where I come in. I meet my audience in person at readings, book fairs, and school visits, and get a glimpse into their topsy-turvy worlds. I think they’re relieved to see an animal or object take the risks, make the mistakes, do the socially unacceptable things, and experience the embarrassments at a buffered distance. It’s perfectly OK for my readers to laugh at an animal for being alternately annoying and annoyed, while this might not fly with a classmate.
The only real objection I’ve seen in my research of kids’ literature analysists is that authors might be disrespecting animals and their true natures. I acknowledge this potential flaw, because I’m a big advocate of respecting real animals – both domestic and wild – not using them for entertainment, or dressing them up in costumes. But I have faith in the wonderful imaginations of children and think they can differentiate between a fantasy animal and a real one, so this objection shrinks in comparison to the benefits of using humanized animal characters.
Now to get back to my delightful pursuits of illustrating the action-packed drama of a water drop, and the soul-searching self-discovery of a courageous young rhinoceros. See more of these works-in-progress by signing up for my kid’s newsletter at http://bit.ly/OrangutansAndMore.
Note: More info is available in the article: Animals as People in Children’s Literature by Carolyn L. Burke and Joby G. Copenhaver.
Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. Or by the Kindle version here. Rita’s newest book, Making Marks on the World: A Storybook for Left- and Right-Handed Coloring, is available for purchase here. Works in progress: H2O Rides the Water Cycle, The Flying Artist, and Rose Colored. To view additional illustrations and Rita’s books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook. Subscribe to Rita’s newsletter, Orangutans and More! and receive a free coloring page of today’s illustration.