What do you first think of when someone says “talking animals”? I’ll bet you have images of fuzzy huggables like Peter Rabbit, The Jungle Book — or, if you’re thinking about more recent examples, maybe Phillip Pullman’s drunk bear Iorik Byrnison.
All these examples have one thing in common – they’re mostly for kids or tweens. None of them are characters you’d think of as catering to adults, right? Somehow talking animals easily sound like a childish device, as something we grow out of. But should we?
Some of the best, most hard hitting novels, have used animals to get their points across: Animal Farm, Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, the comic book Maus. These aren’t fuzzy warm stories about stealing carrots, these are about dark, mature themes – themes like massacre, torture, and political persecution.
So, why use cuddly little animals like rabbits, dogs, or mice for such novels?
Because sugar coating tough themes often helps widen your audience, and animal stories can be a good way to do this. After a long day, I’m unlikely to want to curl up with a hard-hitting story about exile and persecution – but I might be willing to read about Hazel and his furry companions as they try and find a new home. As I’ve learned from my life as a film producer, you can pitch anything to anyone, it’s all about the angle.
I’ve heard Editors say that only kids can relate to animals, but have you checked out Laline Paull’s The Bees? She’s managed to captivate adult readers with insects, and not just fluffy bumblebees who hop around flowers either – her bees are workers and fighters who kill, maim and oppress each other. Which is why I decided not to shy away from violence and dark themes in Theo and the Forbidden Language. I realised so many of the books I enjoyed growing up – Animal Farm, Watership Down, Redwall, even Bambi – were at heart about some pretty serious stuff.
Animal stories have often been for kiddies, true – but not always, and not exclusively. Many of them are pretty good for us older readers too, we just have to be open to them.
About the Author: Melanie Ansley was born in Windsor, Ontario, then bundled off to China at the age of 5. Her fascination with mythical talking animals started in Shanghai, where she’d buy Chinese comics like “Journey to the West”. In the 1980s she spent most of her lunch breaks in her Hong Kong primary school’s library, where she developed an insatiable appetite for fantasy and historical fiction. She now splits her time between Beijing and Los Angeles, and has written several produced screenplays. “Theo and the Forbidden Language” is her first novel.
Have your say! Have you read and loved any YA/Adult novels that feature animal characters? Would you like to see more animal characters in fiction? Let me know in the comments!