Talking Animals: Realistic or Fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library raised an interesting question after I nominated Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright’s The Cheshire Cheese Cat for the Cybil’s middle grade fiction catagory. Asks Charlotte, “… when is a book with sentient animals acting as Persons and effecting the course of human events fantasy?”

I immediately apologized, writing, “My bad. I’ve been thinking about Cheshire Cheese Cat in terms of Newbery and was focusing on age and content not genre. You are absolutely right.” It looks like the Cybils’ folks agreed because they’ve moved my nomination to the fantasy/science fiction section. But then Charlotte responded to my comment, “I think it’s a fuzzy line–The Underneath, for instance, ended up in straight middle grade when it was nominated a few years ago.”

And this got me thinking about the way we parse genre. I’ve been reading aloud The Cheshire Cat Cheese to my class because I thought it would work nicely with our current study of E. B. White’s three children’s books, all featuring talking animals. Now of those three, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan seem clearly fantasy to me with Stuart being the son of a human and Louis with his trumpet and interactions with Sam and others. But Charlotte’s Web? That seems a harder call. After all, the animals never talk to humans (although Fern listens which worries her mother) and seem very, er, animal-like, more like those in The Incredible Journey and Black Beauty (both mentioned by Charlotte), books where animals talk to each other, but otherwise seem very realistic.

The more I think about it I do think The Cheshire Cheese Cat is more fantasy as the animals interact with people, read, and do other very human-like things.  But Charlotte’s Web and other stories where the animals basically act as animals, don’t interact with humans (other than in the ways we expect in real life), and talk to each other?  I wonder.

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12 Comments

Filed under animal stories, Charlotte's Web, Fantasy

12 responses to “Talking Animals: Realistic or Fantasy?

  1. My YA Fic nomination also got moved to Fantasy (Imaginary Girls). Once I thought about it, yes.

    But it also reminds me to the controversy over which catagory When You Reach Me went into. Was it Fiction or SFF? I can’t remember where it ended up.

    • When You Reach Me is particularly difficult to label because mentioning the sci-fi element is sort of a spoiler. I struggled with that when writing my New York Times review.

      There are so many that just don’t quite fit these categories comfortably.

  2. delzey

    it’s for reasons like this that all the bookstores i’ve worked at simply shelved books by age-appropriateness. there is no reason to parse and segregate because often times readers looking for one thing discover something else nearby on the shelf. yes, we know readers on a particular book or series come back looking for “something like it” but it’s just as easy for a bookseller or librarian to help them find what they’re looking for than to let them fend for themselves among the genre stacks.

    i wonder how much of this has to do with HARRY POTTER. if i recall correctly, the NYT finally created a separate children’s book list once HP started camping out on the top of the bestseller list. with the rise of so much fantasy for middle grade readers i wonder if that’s were the desire to separate comes in.

    • I well remember the todo when the children’s book lists started and it was clearly because of Harry Potter. But I think this is something different, more to do with a cumbersome form of organizing books than anything else.

  3. Well, it’s not so much that I have, in my daily life, a desperate “desire to separate”– it’s this particular cirumstance, where the books have to go in a category whether they want to or not. How much “fantasy” does it take to make a book eligible in middle grade sci fi/fantasy is a question the organizers are going to have to confront.

    I think I would have to put Charlotte’s Web in fantasy….but reluctantly.

  4. Mark Flowers

    I think this definitely speaks to the inadequacy of our genre classifications. I remember someone (?) over at Heavy Medal recommending Small Persons With Wings and assuring us that it wasn’t “really” fantasy because it still takes place in the “real” world and concerns relatively mundane actions. We’ve also been talking at HM about books like Okay for Now and how “realistic” they are.

    Is Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh really “science fiction”? – it features an experimental procedure which makes the rats (and timothy) extremely smart. But I can’t imagine ever giving it to a true SF fan.

    • Not to mention the graphic issue when it comes to Newbery — that the art and design can only be considered if it “detracts”, but don’t get me started on that:)

  5. I was baffled when I couldn’t nominate Bigger than a Bread Box for a Cybil in MG Fiction – it took your post to make me go look at the SF/Fantasy nominees and find it there. Really? One magic item and the book becomes genre fiction?

    My library system, and I, don’t do genre labeling for juvenile titles. I think littler kids are more catholic in their tastes and I would hate to see them making a beeline for just one section.

    After all, we don’t even consider doing genre segregation for kid books that would fall into the biggest adult genres – mystery and romance. Kid’s’ll read a mystery, then a funny book, then something with a sword on the cover – why should we separate this stuff if they don’t?

    • But in Bigger Than a Breadbox it is a magic item that drives the Whole Plot, not a little sidenote in an otherwise realistic book. The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, for instance, is a book from last year where there was one small element of fantasy, but it was so secondary to the book as a whole that it ended up in straight mg fiction.

      I certainly wouldn’t advocate seperating the fantasy and sci fi from the non sff in a children’s library, but I have no problem seperating them for the purposes of an award such as the Cybils. The distinction here helps people who do activly want one or the other find the book for them, it makes it easy to come up with shortlists not to have to compare the apples and oranges of the extremes on either side, more books are given attention…and they can be shelved next to each other in the end.

  6. But I actually just wanted to say congrats, Monica, on nominating the Winner! Yay for Cheshire Cheese!

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