Animals as Fictional Characters by Jody Staton

Books, most especially children’s books, are full of all sorts of animal characters. Their portrayals cover a long continuum, from completely realistic, to being so anthropomorphized that the animals are depicted as nearly human.

In Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the title character is a mutt. When ten-year-old Opal Buloni encounters him running loose in a grocery store, his scruffy charm wins her over. He’s a real dog, no fantasy about him, and yet even in this most realistic of contemporary middle-grade novels, he has a touch of humanness about him: “Winn-Dixie looked up at me while I was telling him everything, and I swear he understood,” Opal says. That’s not a surprising thing for a child to say, and yet how many of us have thought the same thing about our pets?
Published by Candlewick Press in 2000, Because of Winn-Dixie was a Newbery Honor Book in 2001.     winn dixie

In DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux the animals are mostly anthropomorphized. Despereaux and his fellow mice show a range of imagined human characteristics, as do the rats in the story. Although their behavior is consistent with the nature of their species, they talk among each other and to a small extent to the humans in their story. The mouse families act like human families, and their social structure includes a Mouse Council with the power to discipline individuals who don’t obey the social codes of their community.
The Tale of Despereaux, published in 2003 by Candlewick, won the Newbery in 2004.

Falling somewhat between the two DiCamillo books in degree of the humanizing of its characters is The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Ivan, from whose point of view the story is told, is a gorilla living in a cage in a dreary mall. He talks to the other animals in his exhibit, primarily the elephants, old lame Stella and baby Ruby, and to Bob, a feral dog. None of them speak to the humans. But Ivan is an artist, drawing crude pictures with the crayons and paper given to him by Julia, the daughter of the mall’s janitor.These pictures become a form of communication that ultimately lead to the transfer of Ivan and Ruby to a zoo after Stella’s death, reflecting what Stella had once said: “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

The One and Only Ivan, published by Harper in 2012, won the Newbery in 2013. Applegate also wrote and/or edited Scholastic’s popular Animorph books, a series of adventures in which teens morphed into animals—perhaps the exact opposite of anthropomorphy?

Whether an animal drives a car, like the eponymous mouse in E.B. White’s Stuart Little, stuart littlered ponyor is totally, starkly realistic, like Gabilan in John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, animal characters can add an extra dimension to fiction. They remind readers not only what it means to be human, but also that the real natures of animals are not so very different from ours.
Johanna Bilbo Staton, known to everyone as Jody,  Jodyis half English, half hobbit. She was a circus aerialist in high school, an English major at Rollins College, took the Radcliffe-Harvard Publishing Procedures Course, and got her masters in magazine journalism at Northwestern University. She came to Philadelphia as an editor at Jack and Jill magazine, married Rich Staton, and moved to New Jersey. When Christopher and Valerie came along, she switched to freelance copy editing, which she still does. She writes mostly middle-grade fiction, usually about animals, and either history or fantasy or both. She is working on a blog about animals in fiction.















Kindle School Rocks!

On Wednesday, 2-25-2015, I had the pleasure of an author visit at the Elwood Kindle School in Pitman, NJ.  While there, I met some amazing fourth and fifth graders who shared some of their knowledge of what life was like 100 years ago.  I read passages of WHEELS OF CHANGE, shared the origins of the story and then asked students to share some photos of their grandparents and great grandparents as children and young adults. 

pitman 6

We had a great time talking about fun and games at the turn of the Twentieth Century, how chores have changed, and what it might be like living during that time period. The students were very knowledgeable about what takes place in a forge, as well as how to care for the many animals that lived side-by-side in those days gone by.  Everyone was excited to know that Tootsie Rolls and Hershey Kisses were popular candies in 1908!       Bookmarks were handed out, hands stamped with lucky horseshoes, and books signed as well.      pitman2

It was a delightful group of children, and I was thrilled to be able to share a bit of my story with them.    BIG THANKS to all the great students at Kindle for a delightful morning!      pitman 1

Fourth Graders at Kindle School.

Fourth Graders at Kindle School.

Fifth graders at Kindle School

Fifth graders at Kindle School

An Extraordinary Open Book Experience.

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in AN OPEN BOOK CHILDREN’S LITERACY FOUNDATION (AOB) program in Washington, DC. For those unfamiliar with this program, AOB brings an author to under served schools and provides copies of the author’s book to ALL the students in a chosen school in DC. These children often do not have an opportunity to own books and most have never met an author before.  Through the generosity of this non-profit group, more than 90 copies of WHEELS OF CHANGE were distributed to 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.

What a thrill it was to be welcomed by such an enthusiastic group of children and educators! I had the privilege to visit TWO schools on Friday 2-20-2015: The  KIMBALL ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, 3377 Minnesota Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20019.

Here I met some amazing third and forth graders who knew a lot about their home town and asked some great questions about WHEELS OF CHANGE.

Kimball Elementary School, Washington, DC

Kimball Elementary School, Washington, DC

After a lively discussion on the changes in their town over the last hundred years, and learning about a forge and what a carriage maker and blacksmith does, the kids got to see a real horseshoe and seemed pleased to get their signed books.   open bk 8


open bk 4

Kimball Student

Kimball Student

open bk 3

Each child also got a "goodie bag" with a bookmark, stickers, and candy that was popular in 1909.

Each child also got a “goodie bag” with a bookmark, stickers, and candy that was popular in 1909.












open book g   open book i




My  second visit took place at the KETCHAM ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, 1919 15th Street SE, Washington, DC 20020. 


Dara LaPorte telling the students about how a horseshoe is put onto a hoof.

Dara LaPorte telling the students about how a horseshoe is put onto a hoof.

Here I met some amazing fifth graders who also astonished me with their knowledge of the nation’s capitol 100 years ago. We had fun talking about what wasn’t in town back then (cheeseburgers, sneakers, cars, TV, electricity) and whether or not they would like living in a time when horses and carriages ruled the day.      open bk b

Janet Zwick - one of the Open Book coordinators - and some fifth grade students at Ketcham.

Janet Zwick – one of the Open Book coordinators – and some fifth grade students at Ketcham.





Ketcham Student

Ketcham Student

After the presentation, I again had the privilege of signing books for the students and answering their questions. One of my favorites was this:

STUDENT: “Did you write the book with pencil and paper?”
ME: “I did use pencil and paper until I had a complete story. Then I went to the computer and typed it up.”
STUDENT: “Didn’t your hand get tired?”
ME: “I didn’t write it all in one day. It took many months.”

Ketcham Student

Ketcham Student

STUDENT: Nodding her head, “Oh.”

To find out more about this wonderful program, visit:

Easy and Delicious Warm Taco Salad

If you’re looking for something quick and easy, but still nutritious, get the kids involved in making their own TACO SALADS.  The ingredients below are for the salad pictured, but you can add just about anything that looks and tastes good.  Feel free to use ground turkey, chicken or beef, or use flaked salmon or tuna from a can.  Experiment until you find a combination that suits you.  Since everyone chooses his or her ingredients, everyone is happy and plates will be empty.

WARM TACO SALAD    warm taco salad

Cooked brown rice, ground turkey cooked in taco seasoning, black beans, chopped tomatoes, chopped olives, shredded cheese, taco sauce (whatever level of heat you prefer).

1. Arrange these ingredients on a plate and microwave about 30 seconds until cheese melts.

2. Add shredded lettuce and serve.  You can also add crushed taco chips or Chinese noodles for crunch. Add sour cream if desired.  The possibilities are endless.  I cook up the ground meat ahead of time and freeze some to heat up for a last minute meal.

The Brotherhood and the Shield:The Three Thorns by Michael Gibney

I just finished reading a very entertaining middle grade fantasy that I want to share with you.


In 1900 England, three abandoned babies are found in three different locations. Born of royalty, they are bound to each other and destined to one day change the world. First they have to survive their childhood as orphans. The first two boys – Tommy and Benjamin – escape from the dreaded Gatesville orphanage with the help of a strange and mysterious boy named Peter. Peter escorts them to a safe house while they await the arrival of the third boy, Sabastian. Raised by a theatre couple who work him like a slave, Peter comes to Sabastian’s rescue and helps him escape as well. With the school headmaster and assassins following their trail, they join the others on the harrowing journey to the kingdom of Abasin.

Glad to be free of their former lives, but fearful of what lay ahead, the trio – under the protection of Peter and a group of fighters loyal to the true king – enter a Gateway to a world they never imagined. It is here that they discover powers and talents within themselves that assist them on their journey. In this Lord of the Rings meets X-Men fantasy world of sprites, trolls, elves, pixies, giants, orcs and other creatures, the royal trio – collectively called The Three Thorns – join forces to reclaim the kingdom of Abasin.

This first volume of the Brotherhood and the Shield series is action packed and will keep middle grade readers on the edge of their seats as they follow the heroes adventures. The author has created a clever and imaginative fantasy world with all the fantastical creatures and perils you’d expect. A welcome addition to the fantasy genre.

ISBN: 978-1-939765-40-6

Mining Your History for Stories.

It’s been said that everyone has a story to tell. I’ll go one step further and say our ancestors have great stories to tell. Just because our grandparents and great grandparents are no longer with us, or weren’t famous, doesn’t mean their lives weren’t interesting. I’d be willing to bet that everyone’s family has a person, event or incident that could be the catalyst for a novel or short story.

While researching my own family tree, I discovered two interesting facts. The first was that my paternal great grandfather worked as a carriage maker in Washington DC at the turn of the Twentieth Century. He worked on carriages for prominent people in DC such as John Philip Sousa. The second fact was that his daughter – my grandmother – received an invitation to a reception at the White House and met Theodore Roosevelt. That invitation is in the family scrapbook.   invitation 1

Think about that. It’s not every day any of us gets to meet and socialize with a president. It wasn’t long after discovering these tidbits that I came up with this premise: What would happen if a girl – who adores her Papa’s carriage business and wants to become a blacksmith – sees the emergence of automobiles as threatening to that business. What lengths would she go to keep that business from closing down? Would she go all the way to the President?
With that premise, my middle grade historical novel WHEELS OF CHANGE was born.

Think of the places your ancestors grew up in or originated from. What is unique about those settings? What kind of occupations did they have? It is safe to say there are few carriage makers left today, just as there would be few telegraph operators, stagecoach drivers or telephone switchboard operators. But you can bet kids would find those occupations interesting and maybe even exciting. What did grandma eat as a kid? What games did grandpa play? All these bits and pieces of our ancestors’ lives have the potential to be a good story for today’s kids.

So, let the skeletons out of the closets. Dust off grandpa’s war diary; go through that ancient box of trinkets. Examine the old black and white photos and letters from your family’s past. Somewhere under the dust of time, is a gem – a gold nugget – waiting to become your next story.

Thank you, Grandma for saving that White House invitation. I wonder what grandma said to President Roosevelt at that reception.     emily 1

Maybe that’s another story.   Happy digging!


2015 Paterson Prize for BFYP

Originally posted on Writing and Illustrating:

Did you have a book for Young People published in 2014? You have until March 15, 2015 to submit your book for consideration for The Paterson Prize For Books For Young People. Scroll down to see last years winning books. The ones I viewed were not poetry books, just in case you thought that due to it being sponsored by the Poetry Center. 

paterson contestbfprulesHere are the winners from last year.
paterson2014 booksClick Here for Application.

Talk tomorrow,


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