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An illustration by Beatrix Potter of  a family of rabbits
Beatrix Potter
from The Tale of
Peter Rabbit
(1902)

 


The Animal Genre

  • Animal stories appear in a variety of forms but all include one or more animals as the focus of the story.
  • It is not surprising that animal stories appeal to children. Many wish for a pet – something that belongs to them, and something they can love.
  • Pets allow children to feel clever, protective, and nurturing.
  • Animals help children compensate for their essentially powerless position.
  • Very young children do not see animals as “other”; they believe that animals have human characteristics.
  • Some of the most well-known picturebooks focus on animal protagonists – for example, Babar, Curious George, Peter Rabbit, and Paddington Bear.
  • Authors use animal characters because they can convey ideas by analogy, ideas which have greater impact than if child characters are used.
  • Milne’s whiny, negative Eeyore is a case in point. Children may be more likely to recognize this trait in themselves if depicted humorously in an animal than if depicted in a child.

Subtypes

Like the adventure story, there are different types of animal stories.

 

Animal fable

  • The animal fable is one of the oldest forms of children’s literature. This short story in which an animal is associated with a human trait is usually accompanied by a moral at the end. See, for example, Aesop’s Fables, the Uncle Remus tales, or Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. 

Pet stories

  • Some of the favourite stories of children involve pets. The child is the hero but the animal is a crucial character in the story. See, for example, Sounder, Old Yeller, The Yearling, Owls in the Family, Shiloh, or Because of Winn-Dixie.

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Animal fantasy

  • Animals act like humans; they talk and often wear clothes. See, for example, The Jungle Books; The Peter Rabbit Stories, The Tale of Despereaux, The Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down. 

Real animals

  • The animal is the hero of the story and we see everything from the animal’s perspective. This type of story is often used to comment on human behaviour. The harshness of the animal’s life is frequently highlighted. See for example, The Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, Wild Animals I Have Known, or Red Fox.


Resources on animal stories

Arnold, James A., ed. Monsters, Tricksters, and Sacred Cows: Animal Tales and American Identities. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

 

Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction. London: Hutchinson, 1974.

 

Cosslett, Tess. Talking Animals in British Children’s Fiction, 1786-1914. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

 

Hogan, Walter. Animals in Young Adult Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.  

 

Oswald, Lori Jo. “Heroes and Victims: The Stereotyping of Animal Characters in Children’s Realistic Animal Fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education 26, no. 2 (1995): 135-49.

 

Parris, Brandy. “Difficult Sympathy in the Reconstruction-Era Animal Stories of Our Young Folks.” Children’s Literature 31 (2003): 25-49.

 

Pinsent, Pat. “Such Agreeable Friends: Children and Animal Literature” in The Power of the Page: Children’s Books and Their Readers. ed. Pat Pinsent. London: David Fulton, 1993.

 

Rayner, Mary. “Some Thoughts on Animals in Children's Books.” Signal 28 (1979): 81–87.

 

Ritvo, Harriet. “Learning from Animals: Natural History for Children in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Children’s Literature 13 (1985): 72-93.

 

Sax, Boria. The Frog King: On Legends, Fables, Fairy Tales, and Anecdotes of Animals. New York: Pace University Press, 1990.