Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem. — A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
By Jenni Buchanan, Reading Rainbow Mom
Many avid readers will tell you that when they were kids some of their best friends were animals. Sometimes these were pets, but quite often they were fictional animals from books, such as Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, or The Tale of Despereaux.
We love animals (factual or fictional) because in many ways they are the purest and most innocent parts of ourselves. This purity of soul appeals to kids, who often share this innocent view of the world. When they’re going through rough times most kids find great comfort in snuggling with a stuffed animal or sharing their troubles with a beloved pet. In fact, studies have shown that children who have trouble learning to read benefit from reading out loud to their pets. The opportunity to explore a difficult new skill without judgment or correction greatly increases their confidence and their desire to continue reading.
When it comes to animal characters in books, kids enjoy learning about new (often adult) concepts from characters that have a “younger” view of the world. In The Wind in the Willows, Rat and Mole spend entire days doing grownup things—boating by themselves on a river, spring cleaning their homes, staying out late at night and getting lost in the woods—with a very childlike perspective. Reading about a grownup doing spring cleaning all day long seems tedious; reading about a child cleaning all day long feels like a Dickensian kind of abuse, but reading about a mole spring-cleaning his homey little burrow is a new and fun experience! Animal characters in stories help introduce kids to adult concepts and activities in an interesting and non-threatening way.
Furthermore, a well-developed animal character allows the reader to gain some distance from what might be an all-too-familiar situation. With this, a writer can show us a deeper part of ourselves or our society that we aren’t always able to see when the story is told from a human perspective. Imagine if Charlotte’s Web had been set among people rather than barnyard animals; would that story have been nearly as accepted and beloved? If The Cat in the Hat had featured a strange man instead of an eccentric cat there would suddenly be a major creep-factor involved in this classic children’s tale!
But sometimes an animal story is just an animal story, and we love it because it’s cute, or it’s funny, or it’s well-drawn or well-told. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter may indeed have a moral, but for the most part it’s simply a fun story about an irrepressible young rabbit.
Some of my favorite animal tales when I was a kid were The Berenstain Bears, The Wind in the Willows, and of course Aesop’s Fables or Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm. Amazingly, these have been some of my own daughters’ favorites as well! Who were some of YOUR favorite animal characters when you were younger? Do you share those same stories with your own kids (or your nieces or nephews) now?
As the Reading Rainbow Mom, Jenni Buchanan enjoys sharing her love of reading with kids and adults all over the world; encouraging readers of ALL ages to believe that they can “go anywhere, be anything.” Jenni is an avid reader, a freelance writer, and teacher of literature, drama, and social media. Jenni lives in Southern California with her husband and two daughters.