Thursday, 15 March 2012

Why choose an animal character? - Jane Clarke

When I started writing picture books I became part of the playful, sometimes moving, and often surreal world of talking animals. Using animals as characters came naturally to me. I was brought up on Beatrix Potter and, when my sons were young, creations like Jill Murphy's Large family were part of our family too.

     But on a recent school visit, I was asked 'why do you use animal characters so often?' It made me stop to think, so I asked the same question to some other picture book writers who use animal characters.

Animal characters allow the author a lot of freedom.

     'You can have the best of both worlds with animal characters,’  Alison  Boyle told me. ‘Through them you can make observations about the human condition, but the fictionalised place you create for those animals doesn't need to conform to all of our rules - that's where you can be playful as an author.'

     ‘I use animals when I don't want protective adults looming in the shadows and interfering.’  Paeony Lewis wrote. In 'Best Friends or Not?' I use two little polar bears because I want to focus on the two friends solving their own friendship problems whilst they explore snowy mountains, icebergs and ice caves. It's more fun than a human school playground!’

     Ragnhild Scamell agreed  ‘animals can do things that children can’t.  They can go into deep, dark forests where dangers lurk behind every tree …Most of my books involve animals which have ‘good ideas’ or think they can do things which are impossible and, on the way, they learn a lesson or two.’

And  picture book writers like using animal characters because publishers like them, too.

     Moira Butterfield put the case very clearly:  ‘Animals transcend international and cultural boundaries, making them ideal for global sales. A human face varies from country to country, and publishing buyers can be very sensitive to it. In addition, there is great international variation in illustration tastes, especially when it comes to people, but animal images are easier to get consensus on. ‘

      ‘I think that it is easier for an audience to identify with a character who looks quite different from you than it is to identify with another human being who is different from you.’  Pippa Goodhart added. ‘ Somehow that complete removal from our own reality leaves us free to jump into that world in a way that a similar-but-not-quite-the-same world doesn't.’

     ‘Picking the 'right' animal' appears to also be very important,’ Lynne Garner  pointed out. ‘I wrote a book with a mouse and hedgehog, which became my first published book. This book sold well in the US but was asked by my publisher not to write other books with hedgehogs as the US don't have native ones...’

The answer I gave on my school visit?

     I told the children that I’m fascinated by animals – and love any excuse to research them.  I said how much fun I have creating the worlds they live in and the games they play and explained how I get enormous pleasure turning my family into animals to exaggerate  my story–  including  dancing dinosaurs, a walrus who doesn’t like going to the dentist, a little elephant with  a big temper and  a great white shark who say he isn’t scared of anything (but is).  

     What I didn’t tell them is that I also treasure those surreal moments when an editor says something like ‘we’re not sure if the dinosaurs would wear clothes and bake cakes’  - but that’s another blog entirely…


  1. Great post! I love the editor's comment!

    Animal characters are fun because they can have all the characteristics and emotions of a child and still be slightly removed from reality. This is enough to give you freedom to have them do things you would never encourage the children in a story to do.

  2. Lovely! I also use animals when I want naughtiness - my book The Malice Family is about evil raccoons and having the characters as animals has allowed me to get away with all kinds of exploding devices and evil plots!

  3. What an interesting blog, Jane. Now readers will understand that we don't use fluffy bunnies because we're demented and in love with all things cute!!

  4. Thanks, Jane. I've only written one animal story -which wasn't picked up, but I did get a publisher asking me if I was prepared to change my little sister in one story into a hamster! I tried but it didn't quite work out. I'm slightly concerned by Lynne Garner's hedgehog/US market experience though as I'm planning to write a hedgehog story I've had in my head for several years now, in a few weeks' time. I've thought about using animal characters plenty of times before but I've never really taken the plunge. Your post has put me in mind to try, though... Thanks, Clare.

  5. My latest stories have not featured animal characters, but after reaidng this, I now have an idea for a new picture book character that is very much an animal character. :)

  6. I love this post! I'm beginning a nature-based series and while trying to come up with the main character, I had thought about a hedgehog. Thank you for your point of view!

  7. I love animal based stories especially dog, cat and bear stories.

  8. Another reason for writing animal stories for picture books is that, as my agent often bemoans, it's very difficult (in the US / UK market anyway) to find an illustrator who does people well any more. It seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy - the more animal picture books there are published, the more art schools encourage young illustrators to draw animals well, rather than people...
    There are lots of wonderful animal stories out there but I also really like writing, and reading, about 'real' children, 'real' people, rather than just animals with human characteristics.
    I find it a shame when editors say 'We like your story, Malachy, but is there any chance you could you turn the boy into a penguin, please?'

    1. I think that's very true, Malachy (hence, could I turn my younger sister into a hamster?!). Whilst there are lots of great animal books out there, I think it would be extremely sad if the number of human ones dwindled...

  9. As an artist I like drawing both humans (fleshy people are the most fun, and old ladies - esp. nude!) and animals, but with animals my choices are almost endless in comparison! With each animal come the traits we know or believe about them and possibilities double when we have them 'step out of character'!

  10. A panoply of reasons to use animals, and your surreal one is very important Jane. I bet your children enjoy being the subjects/stars of your dastardly transformations.

  11. This got me thinking about animal books I responded to as a child - Wind in the Willows was a big favourite. There was a size element to it, I think. I could identify with the animals because I was small, and so were they. It was also plain fun - a kind of gentle subversion - to think of animals doing things they plainly couldn't do in real life. That kind of subversion, of breaking free from reality, is a great joy of picture books, I think.

  12. Thanks for all your comments - enjoy writing and illustrating your animal characters, everyone.