Dispatch #4: Let’s Talk about Talking Animals
There’s a long-standing debate in certain circles about whether anthropomorphism in children’s literature—that is to say, imbuing animal characters with humanlike qualities and habits, such as talking and even wearing clothes—should be an automatic disqualification for lists like mine that are designed to build an understanding of real nature. Real-life rabbits don’t wear blue jackets with brass buttons, even if they do sneak into humans’ gardens. Frogs and toads do not walk on two legs and procure ice cream cones from local shops.
Still, I’ve unapologetically included several books with walking, talking animals in the Top 100 list on this site. My reasons are entirely personal and arbitrary, but I will try to articulate them here.
First, I believe childhood is a time for building a child’s imaginative space—making it as broad and crazy as possible before the world conspires to shrink it down. Wonder is like helium in the mind, expanding the sense of possible; I like stories that encourage it.
Second, one need look no farther than the storytelling of indigenous peoples with deep connections to the natural world to find a vital tradition of anthropomorphism. In these stories, the humanlike traits in other animals often reinforce observed characteristics of the actual species. Why is Coyote the trickster? Because coyotes are persistent animals that routinely find ways to adapt to and outwit the efforts of humans to impose order upon them. Why is Raven often consulted for advice? Perhaps because ravens and crows are widely known for their exceptional intelligence. These stories seem to me not to lessen the integrity of the animals so much as to blur the distinctions between the human and wildlife realms. What greater sign of respect and sympathy could there be?
Looking back on the anthropomorphic stories I’ve chosen for my list, I think I’ve unconsciously selected ones that capture the essence of an animal as animal, such as Make Way for Ducklings, or whose animal characters experience the natural world much as our own little human animals do. A perfect example of the latter is the mole sisters of the nearly eponymous book series, who embody all of the zeal and delight of the happiest of young explorers. Theirs is not a fantasy world; it’s the actual mossy, windy realm our readers can find for themselves. Why not meet it through a pair of moles who just happen to articulate in words we understand their own wondrous response to being alive in it?