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.















Interview With Children’s Author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I met Olugbemisola (Gbemi) Rhuday-Perkovich at an Intensive four hour NJSCBWI writer’s workshop in 2011. She – along with fellow writer Audrey Vernick and Agent Marietta Zacker – hosted the presentation on how to write funny.  Gbemi’s infectious smile and warm, welcoming personality made me instantly feel at home as she shared her knowledge and insight with fellow attendees.  Her Middle Grade novel: 8TH GRADE SUPER ZERO (Scholastic 2010) is a funny, thoughtful, and heart-warming story of finding one’s place in junior high and how even making a small difference is big stuff.

Thanks so much for joining us today Gbemi.

Gbemi (second from left) with Audrey Vernick, Marietta Zacker, and Me.

Gbemi (second from left) with Audrey Vernick, Marietta Zacker, and Me.

8TH GRADE SUPER ZERO addresses bullying, social cliques, and fitting in in Junior High/Middle School.  You’ve written about these serious topics with such humor and sensitivity.  Where did you get the idea for the story?

A lot of the story came from my own experiences in middle and high school, and from my work with children and teens over the years in youth development and literacy programs. It’s fascinating how much of this stuff doesn’t change!

 The back of the book lists ways readers can make a difference in their own communities.  What kind of responses have you gotten from readers regarding this section?

Each time I meet or talk to young readers and writers, I’m re-energized. The different ways that they connect to something in my work fills me with gratitude. The idea that “doing a small, big thing can be a really big deal” is one that seems to resonate, and has sparked so many wonderful conversations and relationships since the book was published.

Some especially memorable visits (in person and via Skype) were with students at St. Patrick School in Long Island, Brooklyn Junior High School in Minnesota, Aaron Academy in New York City, and Emerson Middle School in New Jersey. The young people did all sorts of creative projects inspired by the book, and were just so thoughtful about their work and some of the issues raised — bullying, hunger, homelessness, jobs and the economy.  The teachers and librarians who supported them were phenomenal, and you could see their work just shine through their students. I am truly floored by the wonderful things they do every day. I wish our elected officials would spend more time in classrooms and school libraries, and reading children’s literature–they might see how wrongheaded some of these policies are.                                    gbemi book

Tell us about your background and what brought you to the field of writing books for children.

It might not surprise you to know that I was an exceptionally nerdy kid. I carried a backpack the size of an igloo and tripped over my own feet at least twice a day. I always did the extra credit. I was shy, and I was a big reader. Books were my lifeline through all of the moving around my family did. When I was reading, I could transport myself to different worlds, I could be anyone I wanted to be. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and in high school thought that I might like to be a playwright (dialogue was my favorite) or glamorous magazine editor. Through my college years, I worked for a variety of teen-oriented publications, entertainment companies and worked with children and families on different literacy projects in New York City. I kept writing, just about anything — grants, curriculum materials, entertainment and sports profiles, speeches, ads — whatever I could. I went to graduate school and got my Master’s in education, but I always held onto those childhood reading experiences that meant so much to me. Finally, I decided that I didn’t want to be a person who was “going to write a book one day” anymore.

Do you write full-time or balance writing with another career? Tell us about your typical writing process.

I write, and I teach a writing course (fiction and memoir) online.  I don’t know if I have a typical writing process! I drink a lot of strong black tea. I walk a lot. Walking helps me work through story problems, think through a scene or motivation. I spend a long time thinking through stories, usually starting with a character and a question that I mull over for a while. The first draft is the hardest for me, and I’m an obsessive reviser. I have to keep relearning the lesson that I can’t hold on to a story until it’s “perfect”, because then I’ll be holding onto it forever, and I won’t make room for the new ones.

Where do your ideas come from?

Every day and everywhere! Sometimes from people I see on the subway, snippets of conversations that I overhear, things that I read, conversations that I have with my daughter…and especially those why/what if questions that I have.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a middle grade book about four homeschooled (they prefer “freeschooled”) sisters who are a family band; the shy sister must put herself front and center in order to save a beloved community organization. And another about a girl trying to come to terms with her guilty feelings about the death of her brother. She must choose between an opportunity to see her brother again and apologize for what she’s done, or switching places with her “self” in a parallel universe where her brother’s death never happened. I’m also trying my hand at biography, a book about Ella Josephine Baker.

I have two things out this Fall (September): OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES, edited by
Mitali Perkins, and featuring Francisco X. Stork, Debbie Rigaud,
Cherry Cheva, David Yoo, Varian Johnson, Naomi Shahib Nye, G. Neri.
and:  BREAK THESE RULES: 35 YA Authors On Speaking Up, Standing Out, and
Being Yourself, edited by Luke Reynolds and featuring Kathy Erskine,
Sara Zarr, Josh Berk, Francisco X. Stork, Gary D. Schmidt, Neesha
Meminger, Lisa Schroeder, Mike Jung, Anna Staniszewski, Jen Nielsen,
Mitali Perkins, Sayantani DasGupta, Tamara Ellis Smith, and more. All
proceeds will go to the Children’s Defense Fund.

What authors/books do you most admire in the field of Children’s Literature?

AARGH!!! is my first answer.  J  This question knots up my heart. Off the top of my head, here are some recent ones…Rita Williams Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Framed and Cosmic,  Y.S. Lee’s The Agency, Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus series, Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, Marguerite Abouet’s Aya series, Audrey Vernick’s Water Balloon, Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary, Don Tate’s It Jes’ Happened, and Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs. I have to stop.  If I start with the started-in-childhood-but-still-favorites, we’d be here forever.

You’ve traveled to Nigeria and Kenya.  How have these places influenced your writing?

I think that the places that I’ve lived have become a part of me, and that living in different communities has sharpened my observation skills, and my ability to listen for stories. I’m also grateful for the way those experiences gave me childhood opportunities to read literature by African and Caribbean writers.

Did you sell your book through an agent?  What advice do you have for writer’s looking to be published?

I sent my book in through the slush pile–I was a fan of Cheryl Klein’s blog, and really liked the books that she’d worked on and her way of thinking about story and structure, which in some ways was similar to mine, but in many ways very different — she seemed like a wonderful match. Someone in a writing group sort of dismissed the possibility that she would be at all interested in my book, so of course I sent it to her right after that. Luckily, she saw enough that she liked, and I spent a little over a year working with Cheryl on revisions, and then got a wonderful agent, Erin Murphy.

Some of my advice would be the same that I give to my students: read, pay attention, write, and be open to surprises. Don’t avoid discomfort in the process, and remember that nothing is wasted. (Even if you work for years on something and then decide that, 200 pages in, you need to start from scratch (ahem), that time and effort were a vital part of the process and will make the story richer in some way.)   Maybe also don’t pay too much attention to advice, and follow your instinct.

What is something readers might be surprised to know about you?

I was an obsessed Knicks fan in the early and mid-90s. I had a single season ticket and would go to games alone…I have this fantasy of doing voiceover work, and wish that I could have a career as a puppeteer.

Any final thoughts?

Thank you, Darlene!

You can find Olugbemisola’s books at_ Contact her at

For Back to School: Early Childhood Education Sites

Whether you are a home-school-er, teacher, or a parent looking for opportunities for enriching your young child’s education, try these websites for a wealth of ideas.  All are free.

1. Scholastic:

2. Sesame Street:


4. Foundation for Early Learning:

Also, a wonderful book to help young children transition into Kindergarten is: IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN by Audrey Vernick.  Its gentle humor helps young children deal with the unknowns of starting school.