Thoughts on Newbery: Animal Fantasies

Kids love animals; ergo, there are lots of children’s books centered around animals. And many kids also love fantasy, ergo, there are lots of children’s books with animals sounding and acting like people.

So when are such books great? When are they not? And why?

Let’s take a brief gander at one I think is not great. Now, if it was eligible for Newbery this year, I’d have to do better than I’ve done to date. That is, I have tried several times to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall and always have given up a few chapters in. I find nothing at the sentence-level of the writing impressive enough to want to read more of it, the setting bores me (Camelot with rodents), the characters seem stock and simplistically developed (Cluny is BAD, Martin is GOOD), and the plot (as least in those first few chapters) is tedious (war! battles! swords!). Yet, these books are beloved by many children, go through waves of popularity, and are often well-reviewed.

Recently on child_lit there was an interesting thread about the works of Tamora Pierce; were they good or great? Cheryl Klein commented (and then reposted the comment on her blog):

I draw the distinction between great and good based on a work’s depth — the emotional and thematic/philosophical levels it strives for and succeeds in reaching. Tamora Pierce and Eoin Colfer are entertaining and good; Philip Pullman and J. K. Rowling are not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.

I think this is a brilliant distinction and one I hope to keep in mind when thinking about potential Newbery contenders. For I’m not looking for a good book, but a great book.

But returning to my topic, if Redwall is arguably “entertaining and good” what is an animal fantasy that is “….not only entertaining but thought-provoking (on the subjects of God vs. man and love/death respectively, I would say, being VASTLY reductive) — and therefore great.”?

Charlotte’s Web, anyone? Let’s see:

  • “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” You want tension? You want to keep the pages turning? The more I read and reread this book the more I consider it the great American novel. I mean just look at this sentence — the whole theme of the book, life and death, is right there. That ax. That breakfast. Fern. A mother. Love. Absolute perfection.
  • Character development. It is gorgeous. Wilbur’s growth from selfish baby pig to the wise pig of the barn for evermore. Or Fern’s growth from little girl looking into her small world of the barn that includes Wilbur to older girl looking into a bigger world that includes Henry Fussy. Or those at the other end of life, the sheep and, of course, most of all Charlotte. Remarkable, remarkable, remarkable.
  • The plot. A quest. A journey. A comedy in the Greek sense. About the biggest questions of all — and all for children.
  • Style. It is beauty itself. The exquisite language, descriptions of the seasons coming and going, of children at play, of animals doing what animals do, of Americana circa 1950, and on and on. The master of style is in his element here. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself:)

So, it didn’t get the Medal, but the Honor in 1952. Whatever. It is THE American animal fantasy in my most humble opinion.

So, now I’m done. What about all of you, dear readers? What do you think about animal fantasies? Is there one out this year that you think is particularly strong (or weak)? Have your say in the comments!


Filed under Newbery

33 responses to “Thoughts on Newbery: Animal Fantasies

  1. My favorite fantasy novels with humanistic critters include the trilogy His Dark Materials by Pullman, The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

    Charlotte’s Web is great.


  2. Hmm…I never thought of any of those as pure animal fantasies. I mean, are there any scenes with just animals in them? Even though there are people in Charlotte’s Web, most of the scenes are purely with the barn animals.

    Have you any 2007 books of this ilk to recommend? I know it is early yet, but you never know.


  3. This past week my youngest daughter quit reading Swordbird by Nancy Yi Fan and returned to the third book in Erin Hunter’s Warriors series. When I asked her why she abandoned Swordbird when she was so close to the end she said

    “It got too sad. This bird died and they talked about what happened after it died and I just got too scared to read it.” When I pointed out that the cats in the Warriors books would fight and occasionally died she shrugged and said “But it’s different. They weren’t as real.”

    I had to think about this before continuing, about how my daughter and probably other kids as well break down what they are willing to accept in animal stories. If the animals do their part as stand-ins for humans then the drama becomes more intense, where if it’s purly an animal world then the what transpires happens under the same shroud of mystery that is the behavior of the animal kingdom.

    It appears from my very limited market research that the good/great divide might also explain the humanesque/animal-like split in character approach. the “great” books being those where the animals are more human or stand-ins for humans in ways that might not otherwise be broached in regular fiction.


  4. Perhaps, David, and it also ties to the great books having (to my mind) better character development.

    I’m now trying to think of a great work of animal fantasy where there is great character development of animals being as much animallike as peoplelike. The Jungle Book perhaps?

    I do love Iorek’s bear-ness in His Dark Materials, but as I wrote above, I don’t think of that as an animal fantasy.


  5. In HDM, I love that the connections between the daemons/animals and the humans’ souls and personalities.

    I’m one of those people who constantly reminds others that humans = animals! We humans aren’t in a separate category altogether.

    As per strictly-animal fantasies this year, none come to mind.


  6. I agree with david e’s analysis, but would disagree with him about the Warriors series. Ironically, I came to the comments here to recommend the Warriors series as a great example of this, and then I saw his comment.

    I’ve read all thirteen books in the series so far, and I can say that the animals in those books ARE stand-ins for humans, and the series definitely deals with themes of love and death AND God vs. man (God in this case being represented by StarClan, the cats’ ancestors who have died but who influence the living cats.) The newest Warriors book, The Sight, (published in 2007!) has a strong theme of destiny and whether anyone should be required to live a life they are destined for. It sets up the protagonist in a God vs. man conflict over a destiny that he actively resists.

    I think that david e’s daughter is unusual in not perceiving the series as real. I interact with a lot of Warriors fans on my fan community, and to most of them, the characters are very real and the kids identify strongly with the characters. My impression is that they love the books in part because of the deaths, not in spite of them; it gives them an opportunity to work through their feelings about death. The kids on my fan community write poems in tribute to the cats who have died, and draw pictures of their deaths. I haven’t read Swordbird, but it seems to me that a book which allows kids to work through their feelings about death is preferable to one in which the deaths are so intense that kids can’t even finish the book. Relationships also figure prominently in the Warriors books and are presented in a realistic way, showing the complex nature of human love.

    That the books appeal to kids is obvious from their wild popularity. But they also have depth and meaning, and yes, character development on a human level. The books deal with timeless themes: series creator Vicky Holmes (Erin Hunter is a pseudonym) has said that she draws on influences such as Shakespeare and Marlow.

    As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the series since the first book, and the books have definitely improved as the series has gone along. So anyone who only read the early books should take another look at this series. The Sight would be an excellent place to start, because it is the start of a new series, and I think it could be read alone without having read the previous books.


  7. I just wanted to add that I know that the Warriors books aren’t eligible for the Newbery because the authors are not U.S. citizens or residents, but I think they are a great example of exactly what you are talking about.


  8. Shelia, my daughter is eight and it was her perception that I used as a jumping off point, not necessarily my interpretation of the Warrior series itself. That an eight year old feels these books deal more superficially with death and “big issues” than other books she reads I consider valid on her behalf as a reader; I am, in that respect, speaking for her in a forum where she wouldn’t normally.

    As for drawing influences from Shakespeare and Marlow, well, who doesn’t? After all, according to Georges Polti, there are only 36 dramatic situations (or 20 if you prefer Ronald B. Tobias) available so eventually everyone borrows from the greats.

    What’s clear to me in all of this is that the good/great divide for my youngest is also partially a shallow/depth divide. She sees Warriors as being more shallow and that may be a function of her age and experience, which is what it comes down to with children. It’s us adults that get all bogged down in these ideas which I believe was part of the discussion re: the Newbery Award and animal-based fantasy books.

    That said, if one of the Warrior books took an award my daughter would be excited because something she read and enjoyed won an award. But she’s also starting to recognize that books with the gold or silver emblems on the covers means a book that will be used in school eventually, or pushed at a library talk, or show up on a summer reading list, and she has decided at times to resist reading one of these award winners until she is forced to.

    That’s probably a whole new world of discussion, how the award and honor books are treated after they win.


  9. david, you’re right that age may be a factor in her perception of the depth. Most of the fans that I interact with are in the 10-15 year old range, which is also in that gray area between children’s and young adult books. At that age, many of them are thinking about things like relationships and death, and so may be more tuned in to those themes. Of course, it could just be personal opinion and not a factor of age at all!

    Regarding the 20 or 35 situations, there may be a limited number of dramatic situations, but a good writer reinterprets the situation and makes it his or her own.

    And you’re right that books one is pressured or required to read aren’t as enjoyable. But yes, that’s a discussion for another time and another post.


  10. Monica,

    You don’t have to convince me about the greatness of CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I think it is the quintessential children’s book…and one of the most perfect books ever written for the young. Kids of many different ages can appreciate the story,
    the characters, White’s beautiful use of language and his gentle humor. The story speaks to the cycle of life, children growing
    and changing, true friendship, and self sacrifice–never in a heavy-handed way, but in a natural progression like the change of seasons.

    Another mark of the book’s greatness is that a person can read
    it over and over again and never be bored, can always find something new to love in its pages. To me…that is an essential
    component of what makes a book great.


  11. I don’t know about this year, but there is an animal fantasy that was recognized with the Newbery Award: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH that addresses grander themes of knowledge, self-knowledge, civilization. In spite of Mrs. Frisby and her shawl, the animals are animals, with the concerns of mice and owls and crows living among humans and other animals. The enhanced rats deeply consider their “ratiness” in their plan for the future.


  12. Melissa,
    I wonder. It has been many years since I last read the book, but aren’t the issues in Mrs. Frisby human ones cloaked in animal attributes? That is, the issue of ratiness is not unlike a human wanting to keep true to what he or she is, culturally or something else.


  13. Elaine,
    I bet every Newbery Committee yearns to find another Charlotte’s Web their year. But I also have to admit it took time for me to appreciate the book (and a great teacher — see my “book that changed my life” statement on Julius Lester’s blog). One great worry I have is that I won’t have the luxury of time to appreciate certain books this year. Ah well, I’ll do the best that I can.


  14. Our family relocated from Plainview to Commack in January 1964; at the time I was in the middle of third grade. What I remember most of those months that I was the new kid at school, was the teacher’s reading aloud after lunch, back to back, CHARLOTTE’S WEB and THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE. which was an Honor book in 1961.

    All I can say is that I wish I’d been there for the entire school year. I have no idea what books I missed her reading before I arrived.


  15. I think Varjak Paw, from a few years ago, is a great cat fantasy. And, hmm, Owl in Love is all about the intersections of humanness and owlness. I can’t think of any animal fantasies that came out this year, though


  16. The rats do consider themselves from a human point-of-view. That is, they recognize how they are seen by humans, that they live off of humans, even in their advanced state, and are determined to change that. It’s hard to say if rats that had been genetically altered to become that advanced would have those thoughts or not.


  17. Nancy Werlin

    Let me disagree with the details of Cheryl K’s “good versus great” comments, in the area of her examples. She puts Pierce in a lower category than Pullman because she says Pierce doesn’t make her think deeply. Hm. Perhaps she just doesn’t *want* to think about the topic Pierce is asking her to think about. For whatever personal reason, it seems less important to her than Pullman’s thoughts on religious philosophy.

    But consider. Pierce’s overall purpose is to depict girls who are strong, active, powerful, feminine and loving, all at once, in a world that respects them for it and in which their actions can and do make a huge difference. She shows young girls as powerful friends, allies, lovers, active in the world. One of her main purposes in so doing is to empower her female readers. She succeeds admirably. Does she make us think, therefore, about the roles of women in the world? Does it make young female readers feel more self-confident?

    Are thoughts about this less important, by definition, than Pullman’s thoughts on religious philosophy? I would argue no, they are not.

    I do find Pullman a more elegant writer than Pierce. But she’s every bit as thought-provoking.

    My rearrangement — every bit as personal as as Cheryl’s — puts Pierce far above Colfer and Rowling. She deserves to be taken seriously. Ask yourself, as you read “girl books,” if you are devaluing their contents because of their interest to girls?

    -Nancy Werlin


  18. I’ve only read one Tamora Pierce novel, Bekka Cooper: Terrier, which I thought was an excellent police procedural unnecessarily set in a disappointingly cliched “Dungeons and Dragons style” fantasy world. I’m not sure I’d call Terrier an animal fantasy though, since it’s implied that the talking cat may have actually been a supernatural creature taking the form of a cat, and the pigeons (aside from carryinig murdered souls around) looked and acted like ordinary birds.

    For me, the essential animal fantasies are Animal Farm for the use of animals to depict truths about human society in a more effective way than could ever be done with human characters, and Watership Down for putting human readers into the mindset of animals in a story that only works when the characters aren’t human.

    Redwall doesn’t work for me on that same level because the characters are essentially humans in furry forms, in a plot that could be (and has been) told equally well with humans exclusively.

    But if you’re looking for a 2007 animal fantasy from an American author, I might humbly submit my book, The Penguins of Doom. The penguins are actual penguins, but they sometimes disguise themselves in human clothes, do magic tricks, and have somehow picked up the ability to drive an 18-wheeled semi. :D


  19. Jonathan


    I think CHARLOTTE’S WEB and MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH are obviously the cream of the crop. Not just Medal caliber, but upper echelon Medal winners.

    How do you think WHITTINGTON fares in comparison to them or to REDWALL or, say, Avi’s POPPY series?



  20. One post-script: When I was a kid, I thought Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was a very good book about genetically-enhanced rodents, but Mitkey Astromouse by Frederic Brown was totally brilliant. :D


  21. My favorite animal fantasy is Jennie (UK title The Abandoned) by Paul Gallico. A boy finds himself transformed into a cat, with no idea how to be one, until a stray called Jennie teaches him cat-ness. It makes me weep buckets every time.


  22. Patty Campbell

    A terrific animal fantasy to watch for this year is A Taste for Rabbit by Linda Zuckerman (Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic). It’s right on target for the highest aspirations of animal fantasy that you have been discussing. The chilling revelations in the story about the tendency to regard the enemy or victim as Other are profoundly human, even though the characters are foxes, rabbits, and one charmingly laidback badger.


  23. Wow, thanks everyone for all the thougthful comments!
    Here are a few responses:
    Nancy — points well taken. I probably would put Pierce and Rowling in the same category of good with Pullman and White over in the great spot. I do think one thing that makes a book great is that it makes the reader think hard. But if I don’t like it? Resist it for whatever reason (even as I recognize that it is good)? How do I get to appreciate it for making me think hard? This is one of the issues I’m already grappling with and it connects directly to Jonathan’s question.
    Jonathan — To be blunt, Whittington left me cold. Felt didactic and a pale shadow to Charlotte’s Web (or,even, for that matter, Babe). Better than Redwall (as I did finish Whttington:); I read Poppy’s Return and liked it better.
    Greg — Animal Farm to me is truly animals-as-people-stand-in book. Even if the issue is about animals not being people, it is an allegory about people. Isn’t it?
    Suzanne, I remember Varjak Paw — I seem to recall great illustrations by the guy that did Coraline. And wasn’t there a second book too? Someone emailed me privately reminding me of Ken Oppel’s bat fantasies. She also suggested that books like these are animal fantasies while books like Charlotte’s Web are realistic animal books. I”m always confused as the animals do talk in the latter, after all.
    Watership Down –there’s a book where animals act like animals! But it wasn’t published as a children’s book, was it?


  24. Nicky

    I can’t help with 2007 titles of great American animal fantasy, Monica (sorry), but I’d like to weigh in on Redwall and Warriors.

    I read the first five of the Warriors books, and found a pattern–I felt every second book was slightly better written. When I found out they’re by two authors who alternate, I understood why. I’m happy to hear they’ve been improving as they get into the next generation books, having found the first five rather shallow and predictable.

    The series as a whole only has its toes into the genre of fantasy, though. “Erin Hunter” is trying to produce a realistic world of cat culture. The only fantasy aspects are that you have to believe cats bury their dead and use herbal medicine. The only “magical” element that would break the world of consensus reality is that some cats have dreams of future events (some readers might argue this is also true of humans in concensus reality).

    My undergrad students found the first book in the Warriors series (Into the Wild) rather pedestrian in comparison to the other books we’d been reading in a course on animal stories. The 8-yr-old son of one of the students liked the books, but kept them for days when he wanted easy reads, and didn’t think they were “great” literature even though he enjoyed them.

    With Redwall I’ve only read book one, and I agree re predictable characters and plots. I was disturbed by what I perceived as both class stereotyping and racial stereotyping. It’s a truism to say that animals always represent humans, but some authors make it much more obvious. The class issues are perhaps harder for British authors to avoid, but they can deal with them more sensitively and reflectively than Jaques has. And the sparrows really bother me: they’re pretty much Red Indians, speaking pidgin and wanting to tomahawk people!



  25. Keith Kron

    Good animal fantasies are hard to write well. Great ones are next to impossible. Trumpet of the Swan doesn’t really hold against Charlotte’s Web. In reading the posts, I was going there have to be other terrific ones and I was left scratchng my head. Charlotte, Frisby, what else? Winnie-the-Pooh? It certainly has stood the test of time. One Hundred and One Dalmatians? It’s been around along time now, undoubtedly in part, thanks to Disney, but the book is so much more entertaining than any of the movies. I loved it as a kid, reading it more than 40 times (falling short of my goal of reading it 101 times, but there is still time left for that) and the tension and drama are terrific, though you remind yourself as you are reading it that it was set in a different time. Missis and Perdita would not be written today like they were then.

    Newberrry’s seem to have a certain feel– a feel that the book and the story will stay with you and become a part of you, affecting your own story. And doing that in the form of animals is probably twice as difficult.


  26. Yup, the second book was called The Outlaw Varjak Paw and they were both illustrated by the comics artist Dave McKean.

    I suppose one could say that the difference between animal fantasies and realistic animal books is that in the latter the only magical thing about the animals is that they talk. They talk about the farm or their owners, but they don’t wield ancient swords or have quests.

    A few more older animal fantasies: Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, Nancy Farmer’s The Warm Place, and Clare Bell’s big cat books.


  27. hope

    I’m having trouble articulating this, but I have to disagree that big themes make a better book. I’ve seen “little” stories that aren’t meant to change the world, that don’t mean to be profound or complex, that are somehow perfect in the their simplicity. Better to take a little theme and do it right. The Newbery should be a story that sticks with you, but I don’t think that every Newbery needs to be a monument.

    I can tell you what I don’t like about the Redwall books, and what would disqualify them for the Newbery if they were eligible and I was running the world. As I remember (it’s been a while) the first book opens with a mouse carrying a basket of hazelnuts. When he is startled all the nuts spill on the ground. Okay. How many hazelnuts could fit in a basket small enough to be carried by a mouse? Is he some reepicheep sized mouse? Then how can the mice sneak rides on the back of farm carts? Is the abby a human sized building? How do the little animals get around? It’s big enough that an animal falling from the walls faces certain death, and yet they can run from the front door to the ramparts in minutes. There is no attempt at all to present a consistent framework for the world. Which makes it good fluff, it that’s the kind of thing you like, but it shouldn’t win any prizes. And if Jacques were to add in a few allusions to Henry V’s speech at Agincourt, and maybe worked the parable of the fishes and the loaves into the story, it STILL wouldn’t be a great book.

    A Newbery needs to be a near-perfect thing, of its kind. And none of the hard work should show.


  28. How about the Poppy series? I haven’t read the book in a long time, but I remember thinking it was pretty good. The 2nd grade teacher used to read it aloud every year, and kids adored it and clamored for the sequels.

    By comparison: I also liked Varjak Paw, was underwhelmed by the first Warriors book, and never could get past the first chapter of Redwall.


  29. Fuzface

    I”m fourteen and I love anthropomorphic books. My favorite book is Watership Down. I love Warriors and Redwall. The poppy series was good, and Varjack Paw was good too. However, Swordbird pales in comparison, although it has been compared to Watership.
    I thought the characters in Swordbird were shallow and unrealistic. the Characters in Redwall and Warriors are more real and have more depth. The book was mindless fluff and I didn’t connect with the Characters and I didn’t care about them at all. The battles were not bloody or realistic like Redwall, and the bird who died had a horrendously sappy death scene.
    This book was awful, terrible, and cheesy. It felt like a Redwall knock-off.


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