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.
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, or 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, is 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.