Category Archives: Animal stories

Animals in Stories, Animals in the World

little-dog

 

Who doesn’t love a puppy?  Well, admittedly there are some folks who don’t, especially considering how difficult both ends of such creatures are to keep under control.  So let’s rephrase the question:  Who doesn’t love a puppy in a children’s story?  Or even a frog or a toad, for that matter?

Something happens to a story when it is populated by animals, something easy to feel but difficult to define.  Perhaps it’s what a sales rep for one of my publishers once referred to as “the aw factor,” not awe but aw-w-w-w!  He predicted my upcoming picture book would be successful because it had “the aw factor.”

Animal characters are so completely themselves, so utterly without layers or complications.  The big, bad wolf will always be big and bad.  Lassie will always faithful and true, making her way home.  And we respond to each with our whole hearts, hating or loving.

I once had a student, a mature woman, who refused to read any story that threatened injury or death to an animal, no matter how well written, no matter how well earned the story’s traumatic action might be.  But that same reader was not in the least offended by On My Honor, my novel in which a child dies.  I suspect she is not alone in her response.

To take her side, at least for a moment, I’ll admit it is entirely too easy to elicit tears through an animal’s death, especially when the animal is somewhat peripheral to the story.  I used such a plot device myself in a long-ago novel, Rain of Fire.  Perhaps, were I to rewrite that story, I would still decide to kill the fictional cat, though I’m aware these days of my own increasing caution about such dramatic/traumatic plot turns.  In part that may be because I have learned to employ more subtle devices.  Maybe the shift has come, too, from growing older and wanting the world around me to be a bit . . . well, gentler, I guess.

In Runt, my novel in which the characters are members of a wolf pack, animals die, too, and the deaths are affecting.  The difference, however, is that I entered the story knowing some death must occur if I intended to represent accurately the reality of the wolves’ lives.  And as with any other strong action, to be effective—to be drama rather than melodrama—the plot moment must rise out of the necessity of the characters, not be imposed from on high.

But what about the picture-book lamb that goes out into the world and gets lost from his mother, the story I demanded be read to me again and again and again when I was a preschooler?  Or the baby hippo who is separated from his pod during a tsunami and ends up bonding with a giant male tortoise, his real-life story presented in my picture book, A Mama for 8_26KittenOwen?  Or what about another of my picture books, If You Were Born a Kitten, in which I lead up to a presentation of a child’s birth through first depicting the births of various animals?  How does the animal nature of the characters impact us as readers?

Animals, the living ones as well as those that rise off the page, seem to call forth a purity of response from us.  They capture our whole hearts:  Jane Goodall’s chimps, the dog who lies at my feet as I write this, the little cat mother in my verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck.  They all touch into the most tender, the most human part of ourselves.

And because they are so fully themselves, we become more fully who we are capable of being, caring, generous, grateful.

Blessed to share our planet—and our stories—with other species.

Originally published in Bookology magazine, November 2015

Second Time Around . . . the Novel in Verse

little-dogThe first time I wrote a novel in verse, Little Dog, Lost, I felt as though I had just stepped onto the moon. After forty years of writing and publishing, I was doing something entirely new . . . for me. In fact, I was doing something I had disapproved of in times past. “Poetry novels,” I had been known to expound, with my nose pointed rather high, “are too often neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.”

It goes without saying that the world hasn’t been waiting for my approval in this matter. Since Karen Hesse’s groundbreaking Out of the Dust, verse—if not necessarily poetry—is a form that has been used for novels many, many times. My decision to try one myself wasn’t groundbreaking for anyone but me.

I discovered how much fun the form is to work with once I got past my first panic. I had at my disposal the compelling rhythms I use in writing a picture book, the satiny flow, the carefully orchestrated sound, the distinct taste of each word on my tongue. But I didn’t have to draw my story to a conclusion after four-hundred or so words. I could keep right on going!

And once I realized that, I was hooked. So hooked that I returned to the form last winter.

I entered the second verse novel, Peggotty, with much more confidence. It’s another animal story, this time about a calico cat who leaves home, not quite intentionally, in pursuit of a flying leaf. She has adventures—and babies—and eventually returns home, accompanied by more than her litter of kittens. I aimed it somewhat younger and, as a consequence, found myself writing in shorter lines. But beyond that, the experience of writing the two stories was much the same. And it was still fun.

This time, though, in the midst of my fun, I gradually grew more aware of what I was leaving out, the aspects of a novel that are less apt to happen on the page in verse, the aspects of verse novels in general that had prompted me to find them deficient before I decided to write one myself.

A single word . . . introspection. I have no difficulty inhabiting my characters in third person when I am writing standard prose. And I have always considered giving the reader an intimate experience of the protagonist one of the marks of strong fiction. But writing in third person in verse, I found language carrying me along far more than my characters’ psyches.

Now maybe that experience of distance from my characters came from my decision to tell my story through a narrator, someone I don’t usually allow into my stories. No doubt, it also came from the fact that I am exploring more than one character.  But a lot of it seemed to come from the way the language flows, pulling along the story, giving me little opportunity, it seemed, to dip inside.

It’s what I love about writing picture books, the way language is equal with story and character, the way I get to revel in language, not always having, first and foremost, to move the story. When I write stories in prose, language takes a back seat to character. In fact, language is limited by character, even in third person, because the entire story in a subtle way passes through the main character’s consciousness and therefore is imprinted by his or her language.  

But my question remains: what makes these novels verse? (I won’t even use the word poetry, because few, if any, qualify as poetry.) Is it just the broken lines?

If it is, we have nothing but chopped up prose. Surely there must be more, a certain intensity of focus, a heightening of feeling, a precision of language.

Every choice we make—first person or third, omniscient or standing in close to a single character, prose or verse—brings limitation as well as strengths to our work. The point is to understand and accept both.

So perhaps depth of characterization is necessarily lost in the attention to language and sound and flow, not to mention the concentration on short, intense bursts of feeling. But I’m still asking the question and probably will continue to ask it through the next verse novel I embark on: Is it possible to explore character as deeply in a verse novel as in prose? If it isn’t—and my experience of others’ work as well as my own is that it doesn’t usually happen—are the strengths of the form enough to be worth so deep a sacrifice?