Animals Stand in for Kids

I’m currently revising a picture book and finding it to be a bit tricky because I created animal characters. Of course, in a fiction picture book, animal characters are often just stand-ins for kids.

Why Use an Animal Character in a Fictional Picture Book?

Get Rid of Adults. I wanted to have two characters playing on a beach. Uh-oh. That’s dangerous if it’s just two kids; without adults around, the story would never be accepted. But in this case, the adults/parents would just clog up the story. So, make them animal characters and the story works great. No one worries about a chicken or a dog or a sea gull or something similar running around on a beach.
Express Potentially Difficult Emotions. Books with kids who get mad or frustrated can be tricky. Will the audience still like these characters? Will adults want to read this book to kids? (For picture books, you must always remember the adult gatekeeper!) But write about a bear in the winter who is awakened from hibernation — grouchy is understandable. The trick, of course, is to find the right animal who can express the emotions you want.

Difficulties of Using an Animal Character in a Fictional Picture Book

You walk a fine line between kid and animal characteristics. When we read a book with an animal character, we understand that the animals are stand-ins for kids. Or do we? We still want the animal to act, well, true to its nature. Skunks stink; horses run fast; sharks bite.

In my case, someone called me on the activities the characters are doing and said it wasn’t true to the animal in question. Yes, I answered, but it’s just a stand in for a kid. Um, sorry. Choose a different animal or make the actions appropriate for this animal.

ARGH! The critiquer is right. (How dare they? Well, it’s been longer than my normal three days to pout, so I have to get busy and work on this.) I’ll be working on those revisions today and tomorrow.

5 responses to “Animals Stand in for Kids”

  1. Great post! As a newbie to the world of writing for children, I know about using animals as stand-ins for children, but I never really thought about why it’s done. This opened my eyes as to some of the possibilities. Thanks!

  2. When you are substituting animals for children, what criteria do you use when you decide what animals to use? Just curious since I’ve never tried this kind of substitution.

  3. Sue:
    Great question! I think it needs to be an animal that echoes some character quality that I want. Puppies are exuberant, don’t always listen and jump around a lot. Siamese cats are superior. Armadillos dig and only come out at night.

    Sometimes, an illustrator chooses to make a kid an animal. But writers can also make this a conscious choice.


  4. Darcy,
    Thanks for the tips! It looks like something you’d have to plan carefully lest your characters seem trite. Good luck with your manuscript.