Animals with human characteristics have been appearing in picture books for so long that their place or purpose in a story is rarely questioned — readers accept and embrace the conventions around all permutations of talking, clothed, and civically engaged creatures. But anthropomorphism often has a specific function and three new releases show how different the results can be when animals start talking.
The Dog Who Wanted to Fly is about a pup named Zora with one goal in life: catching a squirrel. Motivated by the examples of flight she notices around her, Zora makes many unsuccessful attempts at liftoff, all the while chided by a cat named Tully. Written by Kathy Stinson, Zora’s story exemplifies how animals often act similarly to children in picture books: having conversations, asking questions, and boldly trying new things. Both animal characters in the story fulfill the expectations of their respective species – Zora is lovably dopey and Tully is smugly superior.
This makes for some funny moments, but it’s the artwork by Brandon James Scott, an accomplished animator, that turn up the humour and add a lively zing to a fairly predictable story. Two hilarious back-to-back aerial illustrations show Zora looking up in awe at a commercial plane followed by her sprawled out on the ground, willing herself to levitate. Scott’s work is luminous, like a beautifully lit film paused at just the right moment.
Sara O’Leary also imbues animals with human characteristics in her new abecedarian but implicitly asks readers to reflect on and react to the results. Owls Are Good at Keeping Secrets: An Unusual Alphabet features different creatures engaging in unexpected activities and behaviours. Some are particularly clever, riffing on a young reader’s assumptions and prior knowledge. The letter D, for example, reveals that “Dragons cry at happy endings”; it pictures a weeping mauve dragon, book in claw, and tail wrapped around a box of tissues. U shows a unicorn building its likeness out of sand because “Unicorns believe in themselves.”
Some letters are underwhelming, with no clear species connection or punchline. (“Lions like a nice nap,” for instance, could feature any animal.) But illustrator Jacob Grant excels at stirring up genuine feeling quickly and efficiently in the limited space he has with each letter. Most of the animals are pictured as part of an engaged, doting family, which realistically includes mildly annoyed and fatigued parents. All the images are surrounded by white space and can stand successfully on their own, a crucial characteristic of this type of alphabet book where each new letter signals the beginning of a new micro-narrative.
The anthropomorphism in The Girl and the Wolf, by Métis writer Katherena Vermette and Cree-Métis illustrator Julie Flett, functions very differently, helping a human character see deeper inside herself. When an unnamed girl strays away from her mother and gets lost in the forest, a wolf appears and starts asking questions. It’s notable that the wolf never gives the girl the answer but instead says to her, “Take a deep breath. Close your eyes, then look. What do you see?” This thoughtful prompt, which could be used with children in any unfamiliar or overwhelming circumstance, lets the girl find solutions on her own.
Flett’s pictures make careful use of sightlines, always directing the reader’s eye up to the sky or down to the land and river. The dusk setting is a perfect match for Flett’s transcendent trademark tree silhouettes, which clearly communicate the time of day while also showing that the woods are not a one-dimensionally scary or threatening place. In the end, the girl leaves tobacco in a red cloth for the wolf, with Vermette explaining in her author’s note that “Tobacco is one of the four sacred medicines” and is given “in thanks.”
All the talking, clothed, employed, and upright animals that appear in children’s books deserve a bit more interrogation. Chatty creatures need reasons for being there and these picture books show there are many to choose from – including relatability, humour, and furthering deep character development in those around them.