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Beyond Speech
Talking Animals in Children’s Literature

Beyond Speech
  • Black Beauty (by )
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit (by )
  • The Wind in the Willows (by )
  • Just so Stories (by )
  • The Jungle Book (by )
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle (by )
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Anthropomorphism, a fancy term concerning the personification of animals by attributing human characteristics to them, occupies a treasured spot in children’s fiction. The addition of speech to creatures that do not normally engage in conversation such as we humans think of it serves as a mode through which authors teach moral lessons, if only because the animals can talk back. 

Catherine L. Flick states in her book Talking Animals in Children’s Fiction: A Critical Study (2015), that Russian theorist and literary critic Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s contention that talking animals “embody ideas that are particularly well suited to illuminating ways in which literary characters gain authority through language and participate in reversals of power in social hierarchies” (p. 3).

The use of anthropomorphism evolved over the centuries from wisely cryptic owls and other beasts of myth and legend to nineteenth century animal “autobiographies” such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) to the fully fledged characters of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) in which Toad and Frog are all but human in dress, speech, and manner. The latest development of fully fledged, humanistic animals continues today in such titles as E. B. White’s Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952), George Seldon’s The Cricket in Times Square (1960), Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), Brian Jacques’ Redwall series (1986 - 2011), and Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux (2003).

Animals that remain animals and not representations of human personalities occur less frequently, perhaps because that distance makes the connection for empathy all the more difficult. Hugh Lofting used this device in his book The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920), an English veterinarian who makes a study of animal communication which leads him on grand adventures.
The fact is animals cannot write their autobiographies, nor has science yet verified claims of some animal psychics that animals speak directly to them. That is not to say animals do not or cannot communicate: they most certainly can. They do not, however, engage in the common human understanding of language. Controversial ideas related to evolution, the treatment of animals, religion, racism, empire, and other concepts that disturbed the certainty of any particular national or racial superiority found a home in those talking animals populating the pages of literature. “For instance, Rudyard’s Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) and Just So Stories (1907) are collections of morality stories featuring talking animals, which was set in the Indian jungle,” writes Margo DeMello in her book Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing (2012, p. 4). She notes that the writer serves as the animal’s ethnobiographer who “has final authority in determining the meaning of the behavior being studied. Cultural translation, thus, is inevitably enmeshed in conditions of power, with the anthropologist inevitably holding the power in the relationship” (p. 5).

Regardless of the power differential, children learn from these talking animals in myths, fables, fairy tales, and other stories long before they understand that animals don’t really talk. These characters impart timeless wisdom, spark the imagination, and can imbue our children with a love of literature for decades to come.

By Karen M. Smith



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