With all the hubbub surrounding Hello Kitty lately (she’s not a cat, she’s a little girl! not a *human* little girl, sillies! but still not a cat! oh, no-no!) and with GirlChild’s suggestion of doing a post about animal books, I decided to feature books this month that have anthropomorphic animals as the main character(s). Yep, an-throw-poe-morf-ick. Animals imbued with human qualities to varying degrees. There is a broad spectrum of anthropomorphism represented in these books; some of the animals are only animal in form, some just talk but otherwise act and live like animals, some are animals living kind of like animals and kind of like humans at the same time…you get my drift. There’s variety. And I’m going to mostly talk about the books for older kids since picture books are absolutely brimming with anthropomorphic animals and are not hard to find!
Some of my favorite picture books that fit this theme are by Sandra Boynton and Mo Willems. I can only recall one human in a Boynton book (the guy who has fifteen animals), and Mo Willems’ Pigeon, Elephant & Piggie, and Cat the Cat series are all prime examples. I won’t go into all these books because there are so many, and it’s been done before…check the links on the author names to find my Themed Third Thursdays that are dedicated to their works! Other notable authors of well-known picture books featuring human-like animals are Anna Dewdney, Ian Falconer, and Arnold Lobel. Just browse your local library’s picture book shelves for a ton of additional examples by other talented authors; I’m sure you’ll be able to find your child’s favorite animal anthropomorphized there somewhere! Now on to the chapter book variety…
Abel’s Island, by William Steig (1976): This 1977 Newbery Honor recipient tells the story of Abelard (Abel), a dapper mouse who gets separated from his wife, Amanda, during a rainstorm that interrupts a picnic. He gets stranded on an island and must find a way to both survive and escape his isolation to return to his wife. It is set in the early 1900s in a world where mouse-sized mice live like humans against the backdrop of a giant-scaled world around them. I recommended this book to more reluctant readers when I taught fifth grade because the length wasn’t intimidating and the content was exciting. While the independent reading level is middle to upper elementary, I think GirlChild and other early elementary children would also enjoy this somewhat brief, mostly gentle adventure story as a read-aloud (in part to help set the stage since the Edwardian era and its dress and customs are probably pretty foreign to them).
Geronimo Stilton #1: Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye, by Geronimo Stilton (2004): As confused as I am about the authorship of this book (apparently originally written in Italian (then translated to English) by Edizioni Piemme S.p.A. (apparently a publishing company) and “based on an original idea by Elisabetta Dami,” these books are all credited to Geronimo Stilton, the anthropomorphic mouse who is the editor of The Rodent’s Gazette, the main character, and the narrator of this series of books. He and a collection of other mice living in a mouse-scaled world have all sorts of adventures that range from escapades right in New Mouse City all the way to excitement in Egypt. Each book has a graphic novel feel with colorful illustrations, stylized text, and many full-page maps and diagrams. While GirlChild refuses to even try these books (and I’m actually not sure she could follow them independently because of her lack of journalism and cheese related background knowledge), my nieces seem to all love them. They’re recommended for upper primary to upper elementary readers. (I would not recommend these as read-alouds–there is too much to process visually that would be lost in an audiobook or read-aloud setting.) There are approximately a million of these (okay, more than 60 with the original series, specials, and spin-offs), so if you find a child who really loves these books, he or she will be set for a long, long time!
Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White (1952): A winner of the Newbery Honor in 1953, Charlotte’s Web is a pretty well-known story where the animal characters primarily live and act like animals but have human-like conversations, feelings, and some behavior (weaving “SOME PIG!” into a web isn’t exactly a natural talent of spiders…). Most of the human characters cannot understand their speech, just Fern, but all the animals are able to communicate amongst one another. In case you’re not familiar with the book, Fern Arable convinces her father to let her raise the runt of the litter–Wilbur–by hand instead of weeding him out. When he’s old enough to be sold, Fern’s mother suggests selling him to Mr. Zuckerman, Fern’s uncle who lives nearby, so that Fern can still visit him. It is here on Zuckerman’s farm that Wilbur meets Charlotte, a spider who uses her unusual writing skills in a plan to save Wilbur from becoming Christmas dinner. GirlChild is afraid of reading this book since seeing the movie at her grandma’s house, but she’s pretty sensitive; I’d recommend this for a read-aloud or independent reading for middle elementary and up. Other books in a similar vein by this author include Stuart Little (the mouse born to a human family) and The Trumpet of the Swan (a voiceless trumpeter swan who learns to play the trumpet).
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien (1971): This time a 1972 Newbery Medal winner (I see a theme here–just how many Newbery medals and honors have been awarded to books with anthropomorphic animals in them?), my mother (we’ll call her Gramma’SchoolTeacher–get it? because she’s a retired elementary (grammar) school teacher and is a grandma (lazily pronounced “gramma” by everyone I know!)? yeah, I’m punny like that…) used this book in her sixth grade classroom as a literature tie-in to her civilizations unit in social studies and science. She says, “I read it with sixth graders because of the social studies and science connections, but it would be ok for younger kids too. The sixth graders always seemed to enjoy it and we did art projects with it like drawing what they thought the main hall in the rats’ home looked like, the storerooms, etc. Even made a huge diorama of it one year that was displayed for several months in the town library.” (I remember that diorama–the size of a door–from more than twenty years ago! It was pretty amazing! My mom was kind of a cool teacher. ;) ) It’s about a regular mouse, Mrs. Frisby, a widow whose husband had escaped captivity as a lab animal with a group of rats. The scientists had been experimenting with extending lifespans and increasing intelligence in the rodents, and their work was, unexpectedly, so successful so quickly that the animals learned to read and escaped by following the printed directions on how to open their locked cages. The rats established their own civilization in an underground cave beneath a farm (from which they pilfered water, electricity, and food), and Mrs. Frisby comes to them for help when her son is ill. Eventually, Mrs. Frisby (nonenhanced, mind you, yet still a mouse who lives mostly like a mouse but talks and uses rudimentary furniture made from bits of brick or wood) ends up helping the highly-advanced rats when some of them expose the group’s existence and threaten their safety.
The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt (2008): Another Newbery Honor book (from 2009), this book actually has multiple interwoven storylines, going back and forth between characters and time frames and settings, all linked together (eventually!) in one time and place and centering on the mother cat and her babies sheltering in The Underneath in the safety provided by the porch that’s guarded by the lonely hound dog, Ranger. The animals in the book don’t have conversations, per se, but there are blues songs that represent the dog’s baying, and the animals’ emotions and thoughts are described by a third-person narrator in a way that keeps them from being completely animal-like in their portrayal. The writing style is described as “lyrical”–lilting, fragmented, awash with imagery and emotion–and the seemingly random storylines weaving in and out of one another make this book rather complex despite the deceptively juvenile-targeted illustration style. Recommended for upper elementary and middle school readers, this would make a beautiful but lengthy read-aloud–perhaps the audiobook would be an especially good way to experience this deep and complicated story.
The Pig Scrolls, by Gryllus the Pig, by Paul Shipton (2004): A healthy amount of background knowledge about Greek myths would do a reader of this absolutely pun-riddled, ridiculous tale good. The narrator–one of Odysseus’ crew that was turned into a pig by Circe (and elected to stay that way)–gets unwillingly wrapped up in an adventure brought on by an oracle of Apollo combined with the sudden silence of all the gods in all their temples. An assistant to the assistant pythia, a dirty and somewhat deranged young goatherd with surprisingly swift development, and, sporadically, an aspiring poet add to the journey from cowardly pig to, well, not-so-cowardly. But still a pig. For now. Because of the necessary background knowledge and the somewhat large number of characters and settings to keep straight, I’d recommend this unusual story for either independent readers in the upper elementary to middle school range or slightly younger readers who have a strong interest in and knowledge of Greek mythology. (And there’s a sequel!)
Warriors #1: Into the Wild, by Erin Hunter (2003): I admit that I have never actually read one of these all the way through, but I’ve had several students who always seemed to have one or more of these checked out of the school library. There are multiple series within the world created by the same author team (Erin Hunter is a pseudonym for a team of six authors), and all of the series appear to share a similar type of anthropomorphism (correct me if I’m wrong!); the animals live like real animals, have human-like thought and communication, and live in a world where there is a mystical magic of which the animals are aware and in which they participate. The Warriors branch of the series involves cats (mostly feral), Seekers focuses on bears, and Survivors (the newest series) seems to be about dogs. Written mainly for upper elementary through middle school level readers, this is another series where, once a reader is interested, there is plenty of material to keep on reading for a long, long time!
I know there are many, many other fantastic books and series that meet the anthropomorphic criteria, and I’d love to hear about some of them in the comments! There is no way for me to create an exhaustive list, however, so I just tried to get a sampling of some of the different kinds of anthropomorphism often found in juvenile and young adult literature. I hope you or your young reader can find something in this list to appeal or to point to something else appealing. Happy hairy reading!