Can you picture Missy with her reading glasses and Rocky with his dapper Homburg hat?
Now, as you know, most dogs don’t usually wear reading glasses and Homburg hats unless their people dress them up (as Beatrix Potter did her pets). Most animals don’t write in shorthand like Missy, or read British detective stories as Rocky likes to do. And most animals don’t talk in real life!
To give human characteristics to nonhuman creatures and things is to anthropomorphize them. That word is the verb form of anthromorphous, and it comes from the Greek words anthrōpos (meaning man or human) + morphē (meaning form), giving us– human form.
People have been anthropomorphizing animals in songs and stories long before the songs and stories were written down. All of the old folk tales and fables included animals, many of whom could talk and do the things people do.
If we look at a lot of the animal stories, we see there are three different categories. In the first category are the “Talking Beasts” of folk tales, such as Aesop’s Fables, and more modern versions such as Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, and others. In these, the animals are not really animals at all– they are people with fur! The animals have human characteristics, good and bad. And those characteristics are greatly exaggerated, often to teach a lesson.
Another story of this sort is Rabbit Hill, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson, a Newberry Medal winner. It tells the story of a rabbit family who have lived in the yard of a house that once had beautiful gardens to nibble in but has been abandoned for many years. Now New Folks are moving into the house. Individual members of the family worry about what sort of people the new folk will be, and how the New Folk will affect their lives.
A second type of animal story has talking animals, as well. But the animals aren’t depicted as furry people. They are animals who exist in their natural environments, and have the thoughts and cares of animals, not people. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books are an excellent example of this type of story, and so is The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, Bambi by Felix Salten, and the Tale books by Alice Crew Gall and Fleming Crew are others. (Flat Tale is one of the books discussed in the “Epilogue: Old Things and Ways Explained” in Miss Missy’s School.)
One of this sort you might not be familiar with is The Polar Bear Twins by Jane Tompkins. This story is true to polar bears’ lives and to their Arctic environment, to the challenges that environment presents, and how the mother polar bears works to protect her twins from life-threatening situations.
The final category of animals stories is those told strictly from the point of view of an outside observer. The animals do not talk, or have thoughts of their own. Lassie Comes Home by Eric Knight (also discussed in Miss Missy’s School) is a great example. We may think we know what Lassie is thinking when she runs to the old couple’s window every day at three o’clock, but she doesn’t tell us in any way other than her bark. My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hare, and The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings are two others you or your grownups may have heard of.
Chicken World by E. Boyd Smith is a book you may not know. Here is how it’s described in Children and Books:
An old picture book that should never go out of print is E. Boyd Smith’s Chicken World. It should be chosen to introduce every city child to domestic fowls. In brilliant colors the old rooster struts proudly with every fiery feather shining. The hens are soft, motherly creatures with their fluffy chickens to train and guard. … Along the border of each colorful page, flowers, fruits, or vegetables mark off the succeeding months. Here information and beauty go hand in hand.”
Why do you think people of all ages love animal stories so much?
List of lesser known works
Rabbit Hill. Robert Lawson. The Junior Guild and The Viking Press. 1944. NOTE to grownups: This book was substantially edited in 1977, 20 years after the author’s death. Original editions are available at Bookfinder dot com.
The Polar Bear Twins. Jane Tompkins. F.A. Stokes, Sunnyvale, CA. 1937.
Chicken World. E. Boyd Smith. Putman Publishing, New York. 1910. NOTE to grownups: I cannot fine a reasonably priced copy of this book, nor a digital version. There are some print on demand but I’d be wary of the quality.