Thursday, 19 March 2015

My Animal Friend: The Majesty of the Animal in MG Fiction

My biggest animal love is definitely for fictional animals. Ever since Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Hedwig in Harry Potter and Pantalaimon in Northern Lights, I’ve had a soft spot for furry creatures – even if, as in the latter case, they’re not strictly animals but some kind of mythical/daemonesque creature. In fact, it’s this manifestation – this use of the animal form to express something else that is so alluring about middle grade fiction.

In MG fiction it tends not to be the animal that’s so important, but the relationship between the youthful protagonist and their animal, and the communication between the two.

Of course animals are used from the very first books we read to children – The Very Hungry Caterpillar being a prime example, but more often than not in picture books, it’s not about the relationship between child and animal because the animal actually takes the place of the child and demonstrates human behaviours. The animal is anthropomorphised. The Tiger Who Came to Tea sits at the table and devours the cake, even if his manners aren’t quite up to scratch. The mouse outwits the Gruffalo with human wit and insight.

Studies show that reasoning patterns of children aged three are not anthropocentric. From age three and up they develop anthropocentricity, sometimes more quickly for those raised in urban environments. They do this as a result of the perspectives presented to them – ie looking at books in which animals think, talk, communicate and act like human beings, which starkly points out to a child the juxtaposition between animals in books and the animals that the children see in reality, which of course do not behave like humans.

Authors quite often use animals differently in middle grade fiction from picture books. They serve a particular purpose.  Many children in middle grade fiction have an adventure without their parents or an authority figure, and so an animal companion is often used to communicate an authoritative and knowing point of view – the animal becomes the guide and teacher. The General, Piers Torday’s cockroach in The Last Wild, breaks Kester out of Spectrum Hall, and gives him his escape route:

‘Silence!’ snaps the cockroach. ‘You will learn soon enough.’

Quite often, especially in fantastical or wilderness environments, authors use the animals’ superior senses to detect danger and tension before the child can pick up on it. 

And then Gryff stopped, his neck craned towards the far end of the glade.
‘Urrrrrrr,’ he grumbled, whiskers twitching.
Moll knew what that meant: he was picking up vibrations of sounds that fell beyond the reach of her own ears.
The Dreamsnatcher, Abi Elphinstone

Sometimes, with a lone protagonist, these creatures or animals serve as a way to communicate a character’s point of view or deep held thoughts and desires – especially when the book, as if often the case in middle grade, is told from a third person perspective. In Northern Lights, Pantalaimon often works as Lyra’s tamer conscience, reigning in her wildness, as well as being her confidant to explain to the reader what’s happening:

’You’re not taking this seriously,’ whispered her daemon. ‘Behave yourself’...
‘They’re making too much noise to hear from the kitchen,’ Lyra whispered back. ‘And the Steward doesn’t come in till the first bell. Stop fussing.”
But she put her palm over the ringing crystal anyway…

In some Young Adult novels the animal becomes redundant as the narrative voice operates in the first person and the innermost desires are either articulated, written down in diary form, or shared with a love interest.

For readers of MG, animals are useful in another way. Animals are often treated as inferior to adult human beings in the same way that children feel they are often treated as inferior to adults – so a comradeship that springs up. In Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door by Ross Montgomery, the link between the dog and the protagonist is crucial to the story, and yet they are both treated as a nuisance:

‘Alex, do you have many friends?’
Alex fiddled with his jumper. ‘You mean who aren’t dogs, I’m guessing?’
Matthew nodded.
‘Then no,’ said Alex. ‘I just like dogs’

Some books also let children see the environment through animal eyes. With eco books it can be hard for children to comprehend the impact of changing environments and their destruction on such a large scale, and so one way is to show it to them is through the impact of a changing environment on animals – children understand the basic concepts that animals need food and shelter and space.

Lastly, the use of companion animals does one of the most important jobs of all in fiction – it teaches empathy and love. Quite often the love shown by children in these books to the animals teaches the reader about love and loss and basic needs. Jane Elson uses a Staffordshire bull terrier in her story How to Fly with Broken Wings to bring Willem, who suffers from Asperger’s in her novel, out of his shell and explore his emotions. This mirrors the use of companion animals in real life, often used with special needs children for the therapeutic impact they can have on emotional functioning.

And so in both real life, and middle grade fiction it is through the animal that we learn what it is to be human.

Clare Zinkin

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  1. What a brilliant post! Lots to think about there, thank you :)

  2. Really fascinating - can I have a whole book on the subject please?