I’ve been looking at picture books for my one-year-old and am surprised by how many of them feature animals. We don’t have any pets and I am not very interested in animals (and I’m not sure that my daughter is either). Is there a good reason why so many picture books show animal characters? Even when there is a human child in a story, it often has an animal friend.
First, you are right! There are a very large number of picture books about animals. From as far back as Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit right up to the success of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo, some of the best-loved characters in picture books are animals. And nowadays, these favourite animals don’t just remain on the pages of a book…You’ll find them as plush toys, on stickers, pencils, lunch boxes and anything and everything else. The number of these iconic picture book animals and their ability to transform themselves into other media tells us that a great many children and their parents love to find an animal in a picture book. That being the case, one reason why you and your daughter are finding so many is that they have a proven track record of attracting the interest of young children and drawing them into the book.
Looking back into the past, early myths and folk stories often revolved around animals. Aesop’s Fables are probably the best known. These are an excellent example of how moral points can be made vividly and vitally through tales such as The Hare and the Tortoise or The Lion and the Mouse without seeming to moralise or preach. In the post-war years, illustrators and authors have worked hard to ensure children can easily identify with the characters in a story. Animals cross boundaries readily which means that more children will find them acceptable and will be able to identify with them. Typically, they do not signify any race, religion or colour which extends their universal appeal.
In Jez Alborough’s Where’s My Teddy? for example, a big bear loses his teddy in the wood. The young readers have no idea whether this bear is like them or not but what they do know is it really, really needs a cuddly toy – just like they do. As well as being universal, animals in picture books are also more memorably individual. A good example of this is in John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing in which each animal plays its part distinctly and admirably.
So, animals do have a good role to play in picture books but, if they don’t satisfy you and your daughter, you can also find many others such as Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much or Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch’s Amazing Grace which are resolutely human!