Several Just-Us League members got together and had a chat about their favourite books with animals and different ways that animals are used in books. Have a read of our discussion and add your own comments at the bottom!
What’s your favourite book with animals in?
Louise: My favorite animal book is a kid’s book because I had such an emotional connection at such a young age and it stuck with me forever after that. The book was The Velveteen Rabbit by Marjorie Williams. I had such an extreme reaction to the book that I would have it read to me every night but I wouldn’t let my dad read past the part where the boy got sick. We’d read the beginning and when things got bad, we’d skip the rest of the pages until the fairy/angel came in and fixed everything by making the stuffed rabbit into a real one. I’m almost in tears even today thinking about the story.
Heather: The Redwall series, hands down. I’ve loved those books since I first picked one up.
Natalie: Of English language authors, my favourite growing up was “The Silver Brumby”. I’ve probably read it 50+ times and I blame that book for my move to Australia. And yes I was lucky enough to see wild brumbys while down there.
Allie: Where the Red Fern Grows. I will always love that book. It’s the only book that has ever made me cry.
Hanna: In terms of fantasy books the Redwall series wins! But my favorite has to be Animorphs, a children’s sci-fi series about a group of kids are gifted the ability to change into any animal they touch for two hours to fight a guerrilla war against alien invaders.
Mae: Frog and Toad were Friends
Cassandra: The Witches by Roald Dahl. This book encourages me not to be scared even if bad people try to deform me: whatever I become and wherever I go, I will triumph at the end of the day.
What are the best children’s books you remember reading with animals in?
Louise: Velveteen Rabbit, but if I picked a second, I loved Curious George. We had similar personalities. As a kid, I loved opening doors, seeing what was behind them and shutting it all away. I slept on the top of my dresser until my parents made it impossible. I explored behind the couch, at the top of the trees in the front yard, and had no fear of knocking on a neighbor’s door if I wanted to know what was happening inside. Like Curious George, I ended up in trouble and had to learn what I was allowed to do and not allowed to do, but I tended to see life as an adventure and a game.
Heather: Hm… I read a lot that had unicorns or horses in them. I loved the Black Stallion series for a long time!
Hanna: Redwall and Bunnicula
Elise: Charlotte’s Web was a favourite of mine, and I loved the talking animals in Narnia. Black Beauty was another great book, and also The Wind in the Willows. I had a dramatic audio cassette of The Wind in the Willows.
Natalie: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents; The Immortals series; Kaskelotternes Sang (Danish book, “The Song of the Sperm Whales”).
Mae: Black Beauty
Do you have animals in your own book or work in progress?
Mae: Currently I have a pub cat named Titus who’s an orange giant. He thinks he rules the roost and has no problem jumping on patrons tables and spilling their drinks while insisting they pet him. The pub is owned by fairies and called “Iron Pub” as a joke.
Louise: Every novel I’ve written has some sort of animal. Distilled is set in a seaside town and there are gulls in the air and fish in the water.
The bar is The Kraken, named after the mystical beast, and sea life is so common it has become part of the vernacular such as people being referred to as sharks and minnows. In An Ogrish Wedding, giant black hounds are stabled and pull Rosa’s carriage like they were horses. In Tiny At Large, they are constantly surrounded by nature, and Tiny has a real problem with bugs. I think animals say a lot about the environment and sometimes the people themselves.
Heather: Kind of, haha. Augment has Halle, who uses a cat avatar but is certainly not a cat! Within the Ironwood has Aeden, a mechanical bird construct Branwen created. Monsieur Puss is a retelling of “Puss in Boots,” so has a cat as a main character and occasional point of view character.
Natalie: Yep, I have animals in everything I write. My favourite is Hrafn, a wolverine saved as a cub by a viking thrall. Hrafn has very sensory point of view scenes throughout the novel (The Game of the Ravens) and I loved exploring the landscape through the nose of a wolverine. My current project (Inner Universe series) have evolved hyper-intelligent animals. They speak, have technology beyond what my humanoid people can dream of and like to meddle with other beings, although they do so without ever letting anyone know they’re there. I also have “normal” animals, namely a few cats and a pet raven.
What inspired the use of the particular animal in your book?
Mae: I thought it was a funny play on the “Pet the Cat” moment recommended by scriptwriters.
Louise: I try to pick animals with a purpose. For instance, in Distilled, Nik does not have a pet and never would. He is touch-averse in general and has gone from living on a ship to living in a town where he is paranoid. He can’t look after himself much less an animal. However, the little old woman in The Cat Lady had a pack of cats because they filled a hole in her life left by her dead husband, her failing health, and the lack of family she had. Her cats became her children, her friends, and her protectors.
Heather: I love cats, so they often play a minor or major role in some form. As for Aeden, the bird, Snow White is often portrayed as having an affinity for birds, so I decided to twist that a little and have her build them instead.
Natalie: I like to use animals who are underappreciated or seen as vermin. Wolverines, rats, stoats etc.
What do you think animals add to books?
Louise: I think animals lead to a sense of a broader world. If I read a novel and there was never a robin singing or grasshopper’s lulling or pigeon cooing, then it would feel like a third of the world was missing. It would be as if the main character never opened their ears or looked around. They would either be too self-centric or too goal-driven to notice life around them.
Heather: How humans (or elves, or other humanoid races) react to animals can provide key insight into the character and their race. Perhaps someone is afraid of riding a horse, or someone else adores rabbits, or yet another person has cats flock to them despite their allergies… and that’s not even getting into the fun you can do with talking animals, like the Cheshire Cat or a wise owl or a brave little mouse!
Mae: Animals add charm, wit, humor, and a humanizing element.
Allie: It makes the world real. I know more families who own pets than don’t. Animals also seem to impact people in a way that people can’t.
Natalie: When people read about particular animals they might find them interesting enough to go google them. If I can get just one person to not scream when they see a rat or call the exterminators when a stoat is in the chicken coop (stoats would be there for the mice as they don’t usually eat chickens) I’ll be able to say “job well done”. Animals also ease the mood and are good to have difficult characters soften up. Who doesn’t feel like confiding in a fat cat rolling on their lap?
Cassandra: Cuteness? For furry or feathered little ones, I mean. Terror, for spiders, bats, hornets, tigers, and the like.
Best animal sidekick?
Allie: In literature or all media? Because Salem Saberhagen from Sabrina the Teenage Witch is the best of all time.
Louise: It’s got to be one of the great dogs. Rin Tin Tin or Lassie. I love dogs as sidekicks. They are both ferocious and loyal.
Heather: Lassie. I cried when I read the book. She fought so hard to get home!
Hanna: Snowy/Milou from the Adventures of Tintin! (comic book, but soooooo cute!) And Lying Cat from the graphic novels SAGA is another favorite animal sidekick of mine! LC will tell his human if someone is lying to him.
Natalie: Can I be conceited and say Ermin from my Inner Universe series? I seem to not have any books in mind with animal sidekicks, rather I keep thinking of books where animals are the main characters.
Mae: The dog Sandy in Annie ..
Best talking animal?
Heather: Part of me wants to say Basil Stag Hare, but honestly, I can’t choose one. There are so many in Redwall and other books, like Thaddeus Whiskers or Puss from “Puss in Boots”.
Elise: Reepicheep from Narnia. His final scene always had me in tears. I loved the way he was so courageous despite his size.
Natalie: Maurice, without a doubt. He’s a cat with the tinge of a conscience and I love him.
Mae: The translating cat in Amy Mckenna’s books!
Do you think talking OR anthropomorphic animals work in adult books?
Louise: Sure talking animals can work, if they fit in the world created. I would not expect a talking animal in a 1945 historical fantasy set in a submarine . . . unless someone could understand and talk to whales, hum. Like I said, it has to make sense. A world with mixed animal/human DNA would have talking animals. A world where there are were-animals would have talking animals, and portal fantasies like Alice in Wonderland can create talking animals. I wasn’t even upset by the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch that had a talking cat. For me, it worked that witches would have a talking cat.
Elise: Animal Farm is the only adult non-fantasy book that immediately comes to my mind with talking animals. And that was really just a political allegory. But the characteristics of the animals showed off some of the qualities of what they represented – patient horse, greedy pigs etc.
Heather: Just look at Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy (using a movie reference here!). If adult books included more awesome talking/anthropomorphic animals like Rocket, they might find me in that section occasionally instead of only the YA section!
Elise: Was Watership Down was written as a kids book or an adult one?
Natalie: In my copy it says the story started out as a way to make time pass on a long drive. Adams supposedly made up some little stories of rabbits for the children and those stories grew into Watership Down.
Allie: Talking animals are more commonly found in kid lit or YA, I think. But depending on the situation, it could work for adults, too. Depends on the world and the audience.
Hanna: It’s tricky, as anthropomorphic animals in adult books tend to be associated with furry subculture. I think it can work, but it just has to be done well.
Natalie: If done right, as with all things, yes it works. I’m not sure why it’s mainly YA and below that has talking animals. I know I haven’t grown from my love of them although I’m technically “adult”. There’s a reason I keep coming back to books like Amazing Maurice.
Mae: I haven’t seen many other than were-animals and I don’t know if they count. I think it could work. I definitely enjoyed Rocket in the movie, but it would depend on how it is played. I think the alien race trope works well there.
Thanks everyone for joining us today! We hope you enjoyed the discussion. If you’ve got anything to add about animals in literature, please post in the comment section below.
Elise Edmonds lives in a quiet South Gloucestershire village, where she spends her free time with her husband and two cats, and enjoys attending local fitness classes, watching movies, and playing the piano. Pursuing writing in her spare time as a creative outlet is a way to bring the magic back into her everyday life.