Tag Archives: animal stories

Storytelling Animals

I once had an adult writing student who had devoted her adolescent years to a journal.  She wrote tens of thousands of words.  Not an unusual scenario, except for one thing.  Her journal wasn’t a recording of her own life.  Instead she journaled through a character she had made up!

Where does this compulsion come from, the desire to step outside of our own skins and inhabit another’s? For what purpose are we storytelling animals?

I have heard many declarations about what distinguishes humans from the “lower” animals: for example language, tool making, bonding that can’t be explained away as genetic self-preservation.  Again and again, however, our presumed human superiority centered on that named skill is cast into doubt.

Wolves communicate with one another in remarkably complex and subtle ways.  So do dolphins. And what about the honeybee’s dance?  Ravens devise and use tools.  Primates do, as well. And how many stories have we heard about deep bonding between two creatures not even related by species let alone genetics?  My picture book A MAMA FOR OWEN, for instance, is the real-life story of an orphaned baby hippo adopted by an ancient male tortoise.

But storytelling?  We seem to stand alone in our use of and devotion to that skill.

What then is the purpose of story in human lives?

Distraction?  If we were to find our answer to that question solely in the stories appearing on our television screens, distraction would seem primary.  And there is certainly an element of looking away from our own lives when we immerse ourselves in story.  That’s as true about our fascination with gossip as it is in our longtime devotion to Shakespeare.  But there is surely more.

Our Puritan forebears forbad all fiction, saying it presented lies, though they based their lives on the “true” stories in the Bible.  And yet what they didn’t recognize—and what some evaluating children’s literature don’t understand even today—is that story, for all its artifice, is always based on truth.  It’s based on its creator’s truth which may be different than the truth of the reader, but the intent of every story is to convey a vision of the world as true.

ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been banned frequently and for a wide variety of reasons.  Once it was banned because Huck steals and lies, not a proper role model for the young.  Now it is banned for its used of the N-word despite the deep challenges it offers our views on race.  Perhaps more rightly it should have been banned for the last century and a quarter because it upends an entire belief system.  Huck knows because it is what he has been taught that he will go to hell for going against law and custom to help Jim escape.  And yet when he does this “sinful” thing, accepting what he assumes will be eternal punishment, we know he has done right.  Can you imagine a more powerful indictment of a society’s rock-solid teachings?

So story teaches truth.   At least it teaches a truth, and we are left, if we are thinking beings, to decide our own truth for ourselves.  Our Puritan forebears knew what they were talking about.  Fiction is a dangerous proposition.

But stories are not just a means of conveying ideas any more than they are merely distraction.  They do something else even more powerfully.  Stories, quite without our consent, create empathy.

They pull us in to live in another skin, another gender, another culture, even another time.

Separately and equally profoundly, they allow us to discover ourselves.

Now that function of story is truly subversive because it happens on so deep a level that it can’t be challenged.  Stories change our feelings about ourselves, about the world.

And yet we are drawn again and again into story’s powerful vortex. We are drawn because empathy is something our very souls demand.

And that, I believe, is precisely why we are storytelling animals.

Animals in Stories, Animals in the World



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

Only Very Happy Animal Stories . . . Period!

bearnamRecently, a friend, Martha, has given me the gift of deciding to read all my books. I said, “Really?” and loaded her up with an armful of novels. So now she is giving me the additional and even greater gift of writing her response to each one as she finishes it. And best of all, she tells me what she doesn’t like as well as what she likes. That’s a gift writers don’t often receive from their friends.

Here is part of her response to A Bear Named Trouble:

I’m so glad there was a happy ending. I’m nervous about reading animal stories as they have the potential to pull at my heart strings so (or too) much. I remember reading Call of the Wild and Old Yeller as a child and I still have feelings about those books. I would never read them again. As I was reading your book I was remembering that I walked out of the Disney movie The Bear because the first scene was the cub losing his mother. It was too painful.

So, as an adult I was very nervous reading this book. It pushed up against the edge of “uh oh might not enjoy this” but fortunately didn’t break that open. I think part of what helped that was that mom sent baby away. It was sad for baby but part of the natural way that didn’t involve tragedy. I was also sad Mama Goose got killed but again it was nice to have the adult have true empathy towards the child with that—helped him through rather than unresolved tragedy.

I realize I only like very happy animal stories . . . period. Funny, though, because I do not have such a strong reaction to hard things happening to people. I enjoy that because it feels validating in some ways.

Martha has presented me with clear thoughts on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. What is it that makes tragedy in animal stories—and so often animal stories do involve tragedy, don’t they?—more difficult for many readers to accept and absorb than the same kinds of hard experiences in human stories?

Is it simply that we see animals as more vulnerable, more helpless, that most of us have a profound need to keep them safe?

Or perhaps it is that animals stand in for our deeper selves in a more unguarded way than a human character can? A human character is always distinct from us . . . different in gender or age, name or family background, desire or personality. We empathize. We feel the struggle. But we seldom let go of our own identity and become that person whole.

But animals—at least in stories—seem to become vessels that we climb inside and inhabit wholly. We put on the bear’s skin, wag the dog’s tail, curl up inside the cat. They are so completely other and so completely us at the same time. No protective membrane stands between the story animal and the reader.

Is that it?

I would love to hear some of my readers’ insights about why animal stories work so powerfully on people’s emotions. Why are people willing to see a human character hurt or even killed, but turn away—often angry with the maker of the story—from a story in which bad things happen to an animal character?

Your thoughts?




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?

Is Remembering Enough?

YouthEvery time I happen across a children’s television program where adult actors are pretending to be children I am grateful that those of us who write for young people are permitted to appear in the world in our adult clothes. We are even allowed to grow old! 

What we must do, however, to make the leap from our own world to those we serve is to remember what most adults prefer to forget … our own childhoods. 

It’s understandable that few adults want to retain a deep knowledge of their own young selves. Dependence, vulnerability, unfulfilled longing are painful to relive. But while we who write for young people are commending ourselves for our ability to stay connected with those places in ourselves, perhaps we should pause to ask a crucial question. Is remembering enough? 

Is the most intimate knowledge of our own childhood selves sufficient to create a connection with today’s young readers? Especially if it’s been a long time since we ourselves were young? Or is it possible that childhood itself has changed so profoundly that we are at risk of losing our ability to reach our audience? And when I say we, I mean mostly me  … and those other writers out there who are no longer young.

There are, of course, fundamental facts about childhood that don’t change with an evolving culture. Or they change so slowly as to feel constant. And the younger the child we are writing for, the easier it is to find a reliable empathy from our own experience. Very young children are connected primarily with families, and families have a certain sturdy consistency.

But smart phones and the Internet and video games and whatever the next innovation might be do, in fact, alter the experience of childhood. And the revolving landscape of movie actors, slang, and junk food has always been a plague for writers to sort through as they try to make their stories feel current without risking their being almost instantly out of date once they are published. Styles of parenting change. Schools do, too. And the world that seems to be tumbling around us at an ever accelerating rate impacts children as much, if not more, than it impacts us. But how? How do they experience their future as they witness the disaster our climate is sliding into? I came to consciousness during World War II, but that was a war that we all assumed would end one day … and it did. Or seemed to. What is it like to be born into an unending landscape of war? 

RuntOne solution, of course, to staying contemporary with our young people is to write about a future that lies beyond their reach and ours. Many do that these days. Writing historical fiction is another way to avoid missteps in portraying today. That’s what I’m doing in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now. Another solution for me is to write in an old-fashioned, classic tone set in no particular time as I did in Little Dog, Lost. Animal stories with almost no human characters such as Runt work, too. All those kinds of stories are mostly time safe.

I grow more aware every year, though, of the maneuvering I have to do to stay fresh, to stay in territory where I have authority, to stay publishable. And I’m aware, too, that I can no longer bring the boundless energy to my work that I see younger writers all around me bringing to theirs. 

But that last—all that young energy coming up behind me—brings with it a wholly agreeable surprise. I once was out there pushing the boundaries of the field I entered with such passion and such love. Now I settle back into the flow, knowing writers all around me are pushing the boundaries still, that their work is robust and daring and filled with a whole new passion and love. And those enthusiastic, hard working, young writers bless my work by keeping our field alive.

Norma Fox Mazer taught in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts with me. And she said to me one day, “You realize, don’t you, that we’re grooming our own replacements.” We laughed because, of course, it was true. 

What better way to experience just a hint of immortality?