Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

Hey Diddle Diddle

Animals are often associated with very specific characteristics. We all know cheetah’s are fast, sharks are dangerous, dogs are loyal, monkeys are mischievous. But how do you choose the right animal for your story?

To begin, determine the primary characteristics of your story’s main character. Then examine which animal species best exemplifies those traits OR, to make the tale even more interesting, the animal which is completely the opposite. Let’s look at a few examples to show how this might work.

Let’s first look at an animal that fits the character’s arch-type.

Typically the main character in a story must  change or grow. If the protagonist  in your story starts out meek and timid, you might choose to make the protagonist a mouse.  Mice are particularly popular in children’s books because children can easily identify with them. Mice never grow beyond small. They are familiar. They are considered to be shy and mischievous. And mice are easy prey making them appear vulnerable. The great thing about working with a mouse as the main character is that it is the perfect foil for overcoming large obstacles.

Next, we’ll look at using an animal that is the anti-archtype.

If our story was centered around a character that is foolish, but must learn to think for itself, we might choose to use an owl. Typically owls are thought to be wise. In Western folklore, owls are commonly associated with studious scholars and wise elders. Perhaps the earliest known link between owls and wisdom is their association with Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom is often depicted holding an owl. By using an owl as our protagonist we go against these common assumptions, but we also make the challenges for our protagonist greater and in effect make the story more interesting.

I.Q. Goes to School

Some animals are definitely more popular than others. My picture book I.Q. GOES TO SCHOOL was nearly rejected because my main character was a young rat and  the editor had a strong dislike for rats because so many inhabit the subways of  New York where she works. In the end we let people think I.Q. was just a mouse.

Dogs, on the other hand–or paw, pop up in many children’s books, but why? One reason is that people already treat them as human making it much easier for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Dogs crave attention and depend on  humans to provide their needs–much like children depend on others. They are as varied in breed as people are in looks. If you choose to adapt a dog to your story even the breed can alter the reader’s perception. A pit bull is going to be seen as a much different character than a poodle or a chihuahua. All of these associations come as baggage which you as a writer can use to your benefit or will have to at the very least acknowledge when writing. The fact that dogs are so common in children’s literature also means that you will want to make your character more original.

Also recognize that different people might see the same animal differently. It might be a cultural thing or the result of experience. Someone from Alaska who frequently has to deal with wild moose might see that animal in a way that is much different than someone from the city who has only seen them through popular culture (Bullwinkle, for example). It is not ever enough to simply plug an animal into your story in place of a human. You must understand how that selection will affect the reader’s perception of that character and then use that to your advantage. The important thing is to remember that in children’s fiction the animal is always the proxy for the child.

Which animals have you used in your stories, and why?

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What is it about nature that frees up our brains? Is it the shock to our systems of breathing in smog-free air? Is it time away from anything remotely resembling a keyboard, boob-tube, or phone? Maybe it’s our over-stimulated psyches reaching for a fix. I’m not sure. All I do know is that self-imposed time to commune with the wild is always the best medicine when I’m suffering from a creative brain-drain.

This past weekend my husband and I retreated  to Sequoia National Park for a little R & R. I’ll tell you there is nothing like standing beside a 1200 year old giant redwood to make you feel infinitesimally small and a whole lot younger. We were blessed with gorgeous 70-degree days and moonless nights where the stars outnumbered the wildflowers, but barely.  Each day we hiked about 8 miles through ferny meadows and ancient groves of trees, past trickling cascades and thundering falls, and over granite domes with far-reaching vistas. One morning I woke to five deer, their antlers plush with velvet, nibbling away at the brush in our camp. Another day fuzzy caterpillars clustered  near their egg sacks in a bush outside our tent waiting in anticipation of their approaching metamorphosis, and a brazen woodchuck mocked us from his stoney perch.

The beauty of this place was almost overwhelming at times. The original goal was to just take it in, but that never felt enough. No, I needed to do something with it–anything that could capture and interpret this miraculous place. I took photos, found inspiration for future stories, and unlocked doors to projects that were stumping me (excuse the pun) back at home. I even did two plein air sessions after hauling my supplies four miles each time, so you know I was motivated if I was willing to do that! And now days later I still feel compelled to write about it.

So, this is my mental note to self – and to those of you have stopped by for a visit (thank you, by the way). Next time I feel like I’ve lost my  juice or need to crank up the creativity, I’m taking  a Redwood Re-boot. If that’s just not possible, than at least I’m going to take a walk on the wild side. I hope you’ll do the same, even if it’s just a little R&R in the backyard. Focus on what’s changed from yesterday– a flower bud that has opened, a peach that has ripened, a bird that just can’t help but sing.  Leave the cell phone and lap top somewhere where you can’t see them or hear them. I promise  you’ll survive, but more importantly you’ll give creativity a chance to find you instead of you having to go look for it.

Happy Trails.

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A Close Call

In my last post I wrote about the importance of observation. Today I got schooled.

The first of the tomatoes are just starting to ripen. They’re voluptuous in all their summer glory, but they are also critter magnets. This morning I go out to harvest a couple for a caprese salad. Yum, the thought of it makes my mouth water–sun-warmed tomatoes, fresh basil snipped from the stalks poking up from between the acorn and butternut squash, drizzled with  the best olive oil $5.99 can buy. I am so enraptured by these thoughts I don’t notice that the Have-a-heart trap to my left is occupied. When I finally clue in, I just about keel over. Inside, along with the tomato I used as bait, is a skunk.

Fortunately, he doesn’t seem too upset–yet. Taking leave of any common sense, I fetch my cultivator which for those of you with an aversion to anything having to do with dirt is a long-handled tool with four curved prongs. I snag the handle of the trap with the prongs, gently lift the cage over the rod-iron fence, and set it on the ground on the other side. Meanwhile, the skunk has developed an attitude, and he is beginning to hint- in an olfactory sort of way- that he is displeased.

Somehow I manage to lift the trap door, and he cautiously wanders out and toddles off. I’m thinking I have escaped this encounter scott free–until I go into the house and notice that the eau-de-skunk is lingering. Apparently, some of the skunk’s odor has permeated my clothing. Nothing too offensive, just enough that you probably wouldn’t want to be trapped next to me in an elevator me for very long.

Okay, so lesson learned. Pay attention to what’s around me and next time maybe consider covering the trap first before I launch into skunk relocation procedures.

As a side note to anyone wondering why I didn’t call animal control – they kill the skunks. At least now mine will live to steal again. That’s a good thing, right?

P.S. Kids, don’t try this at home.

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OBSERVANCE: an act or instance of watching

It’s a beautiful morning out in the garden.  I wander out to do the simple chores that are now a part of my sunrise routine–water the garden before the July sun can whither and scorch the greens and then feed the turtles that are already scouting their enclosures for grubs and tidbits of fruit. But this morning is different, maybe only because I happen to take the time to truly look for what’s already there.

First is the weasel who steals a peek at me from the a clump of rosemary. It’s too brief to snap a photo, but here’s an earlier pic in case you think I’m still feeling the effects of last night’s wedding festivities.

There is a small toad resting  from his lap around the pool- despite the “No Lifeguard on Duty” signs.

And finally, yesterday I noticed a small hole next to the turtle enclosure. I assumed my terrier had dug the hole while unsuccessfully trying to bury another stolen granola bar as she is inclined to do, the sneak.  But this morning I realize I have falsely accused her. A Western Fence Swift (better known as a bluebelly) has laid her eggs in the hole and neglected to cover the eggs.

I come away from my fifteen minutes touring the yard with this:
When we take a moment to observe our world, we become witness to its wonders, and isn’t that what illustration, or what I like to think of as visual reporting with an intentional bias, really all about?

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In my last post I talked briefly about the long history of animals in children’s books. Although early  animal stories weren’t directed specifically at children, today they dominate literature for young readers and for several good reasons.

1) Children relate easily to animals.
What child doesn’t pretend to be an animal? I seem to recall crawling around the house and yard as a kid, pretending to be a wolf, horse, jaguar, and just about any other animal I could think of. Fortunately, my research confirmed that this kind of behavior is common. Whew!

2) Animals are a good substitute for children.
Animals can be a substitute for children, with or without appropriate animal species characteristics. Depending on how the manuscript is written, a story’s characters could be portrayed as either children OR as animals. It then becomes the illustrator’s decision as to what the characters should be.

3) You can tell a story without reference to age, race, or gender.
Animals can be the great equalizer. For example,  a book may have several kinds of dogs in it in order to portray diversity without having to portray specific races. Animals may be old or young, but other than that has no direct correlation to human age.  And, without pronouns, an animal can be gender-free–how liberating!
4) You can imply personality or lay a twist on personality.
Animals provide the opportunity for the author and illustrator to riff off animal archetypes. Or, even more interesting is when the author goes against the archetype altogether as in the not-so-wise owl or the fastidious pig. Stereotyping is always less interesting, though, just as it is for human characters.
5) You can provide children the opportunity to deal with scary situations in an non-threatening manner.
It is much easier for a young reader to deal with anxiety producing situations when they involve animals instead of children. For example, it’s a lot less scary if  an animal is alone and lost in the dark than if it’s a child.
6) You can safely get rid of adults.
Adults can be a distraction to the real issues conveyed by the story and using an animal allows the main character to solve the problem without the assistance or interference of an adult.

7) And my personal reason for using animals in children’s stories? They can be a lot more fun . They can do things children just can’t do like fly, swim deep underwater without clunky scuba equipment, hibernate, make loud noises while they eat…well, you get the idea. They are also a lot more fun to draw since they come in a wider range of colors, textures, and sizes while humans are pretty limited in those regards.
As you can see, there are many reasons animals feature so prominently in children’s books. In  my next post I’ll discuss how to match your story to the right animal character.

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Whether I’m writing a non-fiction book as in WHERE ARE THE NIGHT ANIMALS or fiction as in I.Q. GOES TO THE LIBRARY or PET SHOP FOLLIES, it’s  often the animals that headline the show. It’s not by accident.  In addition to a lifelong fascination with all creatures both furry and scaly, animals are the perfect vehicle for telling a story. It’s a tradition that can be traced back thousands of years, and one that has it roots firmly planted in oral tradition.  Why animals? They were thought to be closer to nature and to have a direct relationship with the creator.

Perhaps some of the best known animal tales come from Aesop, a slave and storyteller living in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. He used animals to teach morals and lessons. Although originally not  intended for children , today his The Fox and the Grapes, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Ant and the Grasshopper  continue to be popular with young people throughout the world.

Aesop’s fables were followed by medieval bestiaries which added to the list of known creatures and introduced the fantastic and unreal. Stangely, these have more or less disappeared  with such exceptions as maybe Dragonology.

During the time of world industrialization, man’s focus turned to more scientific and literary concerns and animals fell out of favor until the 1800’s when animal tales made a shift in the way beasts were incorporated into stories for the young. Many of those stories have been lost through the years, but some have become classics. In kindergarten I launched and ended my acting career in a production of Three Billy Goats Gruff which was first published between 1841 and 1844 by Asborrsen and Jorgen Moe in  their Norske Foleeventur. It has an “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” plot. Sounds like an endorsement for procrastination to me, but, hey, I love it just the same.

About the same time  Hans Christian Anderson gave us The Ugly Duckling,  a tale about personal transformation for the better. Since then a number of variations have been published along with innumerable spin-offs. How could anyone forget Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s version of the ugly duck in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  Now that was one ugly duck!

When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty in 1877, she gave the world a new kind of animal story –the realistic animal story. In her book the noble animal suffers at the hand of man. For years, many  books followed in this tradition, but this genre has apparently lost some of its appeal in recent years. Now we have books where not so noble people suffer at the paws of animals — Marley and Me by John Grogan.

With the publishing of Sir Charles G.D. RobertsEarth Enigmas at the end of the century, a third genre  was born the super realistic animal story . Usually devoid of humans, the animals in these stories acted out of habit and instinct.

Today animal books draw from all of these past sources, but many take the animal story to an entirely new level with characters vying with children for the lead roles. Think Olivia by Ian Falconer and  Diary of a Worm by Denise Cronin. My own I.Q Goes to School and Pet Shop Follies fall into this category.  These books are entirely character driven and the animal is clearly the understudy to a child.

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing on the subject of animals in children’s books. Much of this material comes out of a workshop I offer called LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS, OH MY! Bringing Your Animal Characters to Life. In the next post I will look at the advantages of using animals instead of people as the main characters in books for children.

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