Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! The world of literature is filled with animals! Because children are curious about animals, some authors provide nonfiction texts that inform. In fiction, though, animals can do anything! Animal characters teach lessons, entertain, and often behave like humans. As animals, the characters are funnier, more adventurous, and outrageously naughty—doing things that children wish they could do, too. For example, the adventures of The Runaway Bunny (2006) by Margaret Wise Brown, allow readers to tag along on independent, adventurous experiences such as sailing the seas or joining the circus—while always being mindful of mother’s love. In a more recent award-winner, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013) by Peter Brown, children enjoy that Mr. Tiger casts off rules and manners and escapes to the wilderness to be “completely wild.” His loneliness, however, causes him to return home, where he sees other animals beginning to behave more like themselves—as animals!
Authors note that children easily relate to the funny yet touching actions, rowdiness, misbehavior, and sometimes disastrous circumstances of these animals. Others point out that animal characters allow tough or sensitive topics to be dealt with in ways that children understand, but that are not so realistic that adults need to be concerned. Some illustrators simply state that animals are easier to draw! Of course, great authors write stories with engaging characters, whether they’re human or hyenas.
How are stories about animals inclusive of children from diverse backgrounds and abilities?
Several authors have used animals to represent diversity. Some critics argue that doing so avoids important issues related to gender, race, or ethnicity, but that doesn't have to be the case. In one notable example, Rosemary Wells uses “diverse” animals (cats, dogs, raccoons, rabbits, etc.) to help children see differences and to hopefully think about diversity: Yoko (2009) is about a Japanese kitten who is teased by classmates because of her sushi lunch. In response, her teacher decares the following Monday International Food Day, and everyone is asked to bring a dish from a foreign country. On the special day, Timothy tries Yoko’s food and then asks, “Can we have sushi again tomorrow?” The book ends with the two friends opening a pretend restaurant with a menu of dragon rolls, tomato sandwiches, green tea ice cream, and brownies. In subtle but clear ways, Wells conveys the importance of respecting others’ differences and cultures.
It’s so hard to choose! Among many, one of my favorites is Good Night, Gorilla (1994) by Peggy Rathmann. There are almost no words in the book, so the animals do not talk or act as humans. Instead, we experience the gorilla’s cleverness and sly humor through the illustrations. I love to hear children’s laughter and see their facial expressions as each page is turned, especially when they see the look of surprise on the zookeeper’s wife’s face as she realizes there’s a gorilla in her bed!
How can children’s books with animal characters be used in the classroom to promote children’s learning?
As with most children’s literature, books with animal characters provide increased understandings—children can learn a great deal about characters even when those characters are animals because they convey human personality traits and interactions. Such books provide pleasurable stories of animal characters experiencing humorous, exciting, scary, and even sad events that will aid children’s understandings about life and relationships. Children also enjoy books about real animals, so I often pair fiction and nonfiction texts so that children learn about real animals and their habitats alongside fictional stories.