What Kind of Animal Fantasy Are You Writing?

Original illustration for Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams

For reasons, I’m not quite sure about; virtually all of my books involve animals, either as protagonists or catalysts. There’s my six Mouse and Bear picture books; I have picture books about a Christmas Crocodile and an ant who takes a day off, and a middle grade novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist and another about a magical school teacher with miniature animals living in the classroom supply closet. The book I’m currently working on features a heroic rat.

I seem to have a thing for animal fantasies. Like all fantasy, the fantasy world has to have consistent rules, and once upon a time, to help me figure out what I was doing, I developed a list of books featuring animals and broke them up into categories as I saw them. I discovered that animal fantasy books seemed to fall into five main types. I thought it would be fun and maybe helpful to share for those of you who also find yourself writing animal fantasy.

MUTUAL WORLD

From A Wind in the Willows, illustration by E.H. Shepard

Animals and humans live side by side in a mutually perceived world. Animals have human cultural artifacts and interact in a human-like way with humans. Some examples:

-The Wind in the Willows—a blend of human culture and animal realism, i.e. they live in burrows, but burrows furnished with fireplaces and easy chairs.
-Stuart Little—milieu is a human culture with Stuart living in it as if he were a boy. But he has some mouse-like qualities. Interestingly, I think Margalo the bird he loves acts as a purely natural bird
Dr. Doolittle—Certainly Dr. Doolittle and people close to him share a mutual world with the animals, other humans see animals as merely animals
Freddy the Detective books—the setting is naturalistic i.e. the farm animals live in the barn, but they use a few human artifacts and a few people know the animals are intelligent. They talk to the animals, although the animals don’t actually talk back to them.

ANIMAL UNDERWORLD

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, illustration by Zena Bernstein

Animals often have a human-like culture, especially the ability to talk, and sometimes their world includes tools, clothing and other artifacts. But the animals are perceived by humans as animals in a natural world. The animals are often threatened by the human world. No communication between animals and humans other than what would seem normal to the humans. Some examples:

-Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Babe
Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale
Charlotte’s Web–actually, Fern, alone among the humans hears them talk, but we never see her in conversation with them. She merely observes their world—privy to it because she can see into their world by virtue of her innocence. As she gets older and interested in a boy, she loses this.
-A Rat’s Tale–human artifacts adapted to animals’ use, but humans never realize this. Much like the Borrowers
A Cricket in Times Square
The Mouse and His Child–features toy characters, as well as animal characters, who are mostly perceived by humans as regular toys and animals

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

From Bread and Jam for Frances, illustration by Lillian Hoban

A world only inhabited by animal characters, but their world operates like the human world. Animals in clothes, driving cars, etc. Some examples:

-Abel’s Island
Beatrix Potter books–animals live in cottages, wear clothes, etc. No humans in most of them. Peter Rabbit is an exception and would fit under the Animal Underworld category
Time Stops for No Mouse
Piggins books
Redwall series
Doctor DeSoto
-The Frances books

There something of a subset in this category that shows up a lot in picture books which is the animal world as a kind of Arcadia, a timeless pre-industrial world:

-A Visitor for Bear
Frog and Toad

ALLEGORICAL WORLD

From Watership Down, illustration by Aldo Galli

Animals live in a natural environment, but deal with issues relevant to human culture. The constraints of the naturalistic setting often enhance thrust of the social commentary. For example:

A Hive for the Honeybee
Watership Down
Animal Farm

A SECRET INNER LIFE

Behavior and cultural issues true to natural animal life, but animals think, feel and communicate among themselves. For example:

-Bambi
Black Beauty

Like all efforts to categorize things, some of these books blend in bits of other categories. For example Watership Down has some intrusion by an unknowing human world, making it also an Animal Underworld.

And there are books like Curious George which despite its very human-like little monkey I wouldn’t call an animal fantasy. Maybe there should be a category called HUMANS MADE TO LOOK LIKE ANIMALS. We could fit the Berenstain Bears under there as well.

Even though they are stuffed animals, I think the Winnie-the-Pooh books would fit under the Animal Underworld category with only one human, a child, as in Charlotte’s Web aware of their sentience.

And then there are books like The Mouse of Amherst that I can’t quite fit into any category. The mouse lives in an Animal Underworld, but she communicates through poems with Emily Dickinson, as if they perhaps live in a Mutual World. And there’s a cat who seems to be merely a cat. So, maybe anything goes as long as you know how your world works.

From The Mouse of Amherst, illustration by Claire A Nivola

 

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10 responses to “What Kind of Animal Fantasy Are You Writing?

  1. Great post! Fascinating to think of the categories that way. Almost all of my picture book ideas involve animals, too, and the ones I like to read involve animals. Would Berenstein Bears fit under Alternate Universe, though? I can’t remember the books too well. It would be interesting to see what draws people to animal fantasies. My theory for myself is that it is a way for people who don’t feel like they fit in to connect better through characters that don’t look like them, or human, at all. I’m Asian, and I think that not seeing my race represented in media or in my daily interactions very much in part led me to turn to nature for connection. Animals represent universal archetypes not based on specific human ethnicities or cultures, but there are “cultural differences” between animal species that echo human ones. I read an interview with Jessixa Bagley where she mentioned that she liked to draw animals because she didn’t see herself represented in many kid’s books as well.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Aijung. You’re right. Berenstain Bears would fit under Alternate Universe. The idea that animals often have a built-in universal type is a really good point. In my Mouse and Bear books, for example, the story is informed by the fact that bears are seen as big and, often, grumpy, and mice are seen as tiny and quick. It adds to your character without you having to say anything. Right away, because of their reputation, a Cowardly Lion is more interesting than a brave one. I like, too, that animals are “ethnicity neutral.” The other thing about animal characters is they can be childlike yet be doing adult things–such as living on their own like Frog and Toad.

  3. Hi Bonnie, yes, animals can have stereotypes and it’s interesting to break those stereotypes, just like it is with humans. It’s also fun to work with the familiarity of those stereotypes as children learn about animals. Maybe stereotype isn’t the right word. Associations? In the animal world, these associations are based on habitat, behavior, etc but animals have individual personalities as well. And Frog and Toad was one of my favorite series as a kid! I love that animals can be childlike and do adult things.

    Once, when I submitted a manuscript for critique using characters that were cats, someone asked if I was avoiding the issue of diversity. I admit that I didn’t want to address diversity in this manuscript because the story wasn’t about that, but that I also preferred to draw and read picture books about animals. After reading your post, I am more conscious that animals bring about their own qualities that humans cannot, and some people may find particular empathy through connecting with animal characters. While it may seem like avoidance of diversity, I feel that I can make certain stories more universal, especially in picture books, by using animals. Maybe some would disagree, but that’s where I’m at right now!

    I have not read your Mouse and Bear books yet, I will check them out soon!

  4. I just like animal characters, too. They are funny and fantastical along with all their other handy qualities. Thanks for checking out Mouse and Bear! 🙂

  5. laurakvasnosky

    This is fun to think about. I, too, love to put my human characters in furry suits in what you label their alternate universes. One advantage of having anthropomorphized animals instead of human characters is they are ethnically universal by having no discernible race. Maybe more kids will see themselves in a fox or a bear than they might the image of a human character with particular colors of skin and hair etc. Plus you get to play with the quiddity of the animal to expand the story, i.e. the foxiness of the fox: doozy up their tails, punch paws, etc.

  6. How I love your fox sisters and their lovely tails. 🙂

  7. Great article, Bonnie. As another writer who gravitates to animal characters, I found it fun to see where my stories fit into you Animal World categories. And wonder what that might say about my own world view????? 🐾🐾

  8. LeeAnn, your comment reminded me of another great thing about using animal characters in kids books–kids live in their own kind of “underworld,” too. Like animals, they often have to follow the command of others. They live on the fringes of the adult world. They have their own understandings among themselves. They can be “wild.” They often can’t control their impulses. And, like most of the animals that kids see around them, kids are small.

  9. Great read Bonny, fun observations! A related category might be humans who act like animals and relate to one another as animals. Maybe stories about Santas elves have some of that…. Anyway, fascinating subject!

    • Thanks, Dina. I hadn’t thought of stories that encompass humans acting like animals. That’s an interesting category. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I bet they are there. There are stories of animals who appear as humans–like Swan Lake. Hmmmmm, a new train of thought. 🙂

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