Researchers at the University of Toronto recently reported that children’s books with human characters have a greater moral impact on young people than books with anthropomorphic protagonists. The subjects of the study were read stories about sharing that featured either a human or an animal character; kids were more generous – meaning they gave away more of their stickers – after hearing the human story. But it’s going to take more than a study to convince the kidlit world to give up its Winnie-the-Poohs, Franklin the Turtles, and Aesop’s Fables. Three new picture books starring a multitude of creatures great and small provide entertaining reads, and impart subtle lessons about embracing each other’s differences, making new friends, and literally weathering a storm.
In The Antlered Ship, by U.S. author Dashka Slater and illustrated by Toronto brothers Terry and Eric Fan, Marco is troubled by existential questions that don’t resonate with his fellow foxes; they are more concerned with the next meal. When a ship docks in the nearby harbour Marco greets the crew, captained by a deer, and proceeds to join them in their search for “a wonderful island, with tall, sweet grass and short, sweet trees.” Marco hopes to find new like-minded fox friends there. The ocean adventure is equal parts mundane (reading maps, making stew) and dramatic (stormy weather, pirate attack, treacherous rocks). While this motley crew of sailors – there is also a gang of lazy pigeons on board – could have been written for humorous effect, Slater keeps the text contemplative. This earnestness is part of the beauty of the story.
The visual world the Fan Brothers have created is textured and gorgeous, from the muted beiges of the forest and the ship to the tense blue-grey waters of the stormy sea. There is arresting detail in the fox’s fur, the boat’s wooden grain, and the majestic antlers found throughout the story. The reader feels compelled to linger with the pictures, making The Antlered Ship the opposite of a page-turner – in this case, a very good thing.
Woodrow at Sea is another ocean-faring adventure story, this time about an elephant and mouse on separate but strikingly similar journeys. They meet, pool resources, make music, and end up saving one another’s lives. It’s a wordless picture book, but children should have no trouble figuring out what’s happening and creating their own narration and dialogue. The characters are likable in their animation and the “plot” finds just the right mix of silly and scary. What’s most surprising about Woodrow at Sea is that it’s by Wallace Edwards, the beloved Governor General’s Literary Award–winner known for his intricate wordplay and illustrations. With this book, Edwards is moving in a different direction, foregoing his rich, deep-coloured palette for one much brighter, and embracing simplicity in his drawings rather than detail and subtext. Fans will miss his unique voice and style – not to mention witty rhymes – but taken on its own, Woodrow at Sea is a delight.
The characters in Shelter are not interested in new experiences or new friends. They’re content in their established woodland community of birds, bunnies, foxes, and squirrels, where all the inhabitants work together to prepare for an imminent storm. But once safely secured in their homes, it’s every animal family for itself. When two strangers appear out of the fog, knocking on doors and asking for help, they are summarily turned away and told to try next door. Eventually, one compassionate little fox takes pity on what turns out to be two bear brothers.
Author Céline Claire uses the text to extol the virtues of showing kindness to strangers, as the foxes and bears benefit from a humble shelter they end up sharing. Like in The Antlered Ship, Qin Leng’s artwork utilizes rich beiges, browns, and dark greens for the woods, and stark whites, greys, and blues in the winter storm. Her loose watercolour style makes her animals less vivid and realistic than the Fan Brothers’ but her drawings might be more comforting and relatable for smaller children.
These stories may not get the thumbs-up from researchers in the moral-impact department, but they are sweet, charming, and sticker-worthy.