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…