Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Anthropomorphism in children's picture books

Interesting article on anthropomorphism from the perspective of a picture book illustrator:

“Would picture books taking a more naturalistic approach to their subject matter be a healthier way to educate and entertain our youngsters?”

Because of course, children’s books must be Good For Them.

This is probably the first time I’ve ever used the phrase false dichotomy twice in a single day, but I think it applies here too. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with encouraging more awesome realistic picture books about the natural world that inspire kids to treat other species and the natural world with care and respect and wonder. And there’s nothing wrong with encouraging awesome fantastic picture books with pigs in overalls and pandas with bows on their heads, that appeal to the sense of fun and imagination. Plenty of room for both, and shades in between as well.

Another aspect that just occurred to me – I can understand that using animals simply as human stand-ins in illustration doesn’t do much for conservation and such. But I’m wondering about the kinds of picture books that tell anthro stories (say, with talking animals) but are illustrated using real-looking animals. Would that still have the same problem he’s talking about, I wonder? Or in some ways, would that be the best of both worlds – an imaginative story, not bound strictly to realism but still inspiring empathy for the creatures involved?

I guess I’m sort of asking, does a book like Charlotte’s Web, for example, make kids potentially think differently about real spiders, having created empathy with a character who’s obviously a real spider (though doing things that real spiders don’t necessarily do)? Or does it take a completely realistic story to accomplish the goals he’s talking about?

I’m curious how in the world they expect using “normal” animals will teach children about conservation.

You know what I thought about animals at the age where I was having these kinds of books read to me? I wanted a house full of them. I wanted to have dogs literally in every container, shelf, cupboard, even the refridgerator. I wanted so many dogs that they would provide structural support for the house. I wasn’t thinking about preservation of rain forests or the effects of fracking on the environment. I was thinking about puppies. Lots and lots of puppies.

Either I was a moron of a child, or they grossly over-estimate the impact switching from anthropomorphic to real animals would have.

Edit: And of all the examples they could use, they use Pandas? The bears that are too lazy to actively procreate themselves?

Or, I don’t know… counterpoint: anthropomorphizing animals is a BETTER way to get small children (whose thoughts are always self-centered) to appreciate animals and the natural world. This article doesn’t strike me as very well thought-out or argued. I mean, hell, I remember in elementary school so many of us who’d been fed the anthro animal stuff ended up saying things like ‘when I grow up, I want to learn how to talk with animals!’ because we wanted to be part of those stories. And some of those kids are presumably doing research on whale songs and dolphin whistles right now.

Besides… most of the natural world isn’t considered fit for kids anyway. 98% of it is murder and sex. When we tell such stories for children, we naturally anthropomorphize just to keep things kid-friendly. I mean, if someone wants to make a children’s book about the adventures of a cute little jackal puppy in the desert or something, they can feel free, but if they want it to remain truly separate from humanity it had better not have any words in it.

I actually have a script in my Children’s folder right now about the adventures of a cute little African wild dog puppy :slight_smile: I’m going for ‘realistic behaviour but they talk’.

When I was small I loved a series of books by Jill Tomlinson: The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark, The Otter Who Wanted To Know and Penguin’s Progress. They did a good job of describing wild animal behaviour even though the animals also had human levels of intelligence and communication, and kept it clean for kids too; the penguin mums brought back ‘fish soup’ for the chicks, which I learned years later actually meant ‘regurgitated semi-digested fish’.

And thequeenofmars, your description of the wall-to-wall dogs made me laugh out loud.

nods I was thinking about this, too. I think the ideal balance might be something like Stellaluna, where you have a nonrealistic story and have named characters and such, but they’re obviously real animals living in a real world. As superficial as it might be, a lot of people (children and adults) only become familiar with, and relate to, animals – especially wild animals – in terms of Disney-type characters. I’m sure this frustrates conservationists no end, especially when things aren’t depicted naturally and people wind up with more misconceptions from when they started, but – people relate to story.

This article doesn't strike me as very well thought-out or argued.

Well, to be fair, it is just a blog post with an observation that poses a question. Yesterday when I was reading it, I was finding that more of the substance was in the discussion in the comments, than in the blog post itself.

When we tell such stories for children, we naturally anthropomorphize just to keep things kid-friendly.

Brings to mind those nature movies that Disney’s been doing the last few years. That’s probably the type of thing the blog post is referring to – things that are appropriate for children but based in the natural world, so there’s still going to be some element of character and story, but just, you know, not pandas walking around in the grocery store. And again, yeah, I think kids need realistic books, and that’s good to have, it just doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with the pandas pushing grocery carts.

(And I would have had a house of kittens, myself, though I question whether they would have provided as solid a structural support as puppies.)

[Edited to add: Incidentally, when I first started reading that blog post yesterday, I didn’t think it was going to involve a complaint about using anthro animals instead of realistic ones; I thought the woman was going to have an issue with using anthro animals instead of people and seeing that as lazy, because of it maybe being seen as a cop-out from having to choose what race(s) the characters should be – like, wouldn’t it be better to show an Asian child than a dressed-up panda cub, or something – because, as the post’s author points out, that’s often the justification for using anthro characters in picture books instead of human characters.]