EP 5 Transcript: Why Are Big Topics Hidden By Animals in Kidlit?

0:37 Corrie: Hello and Welcome back to the Picture Bookstagang podcast! I’m Corrie and I am joined by my stunningly gorgeous and super amazing co-hosts Kelly and Ale

0:47 Kelly: Hello, good to be back! 

0:48 Ale: Hi I am Ale, and I am super stunningly gorgeous, that is true!

0:54 Kelly: It’s true it’s true, we are, all of us.

0:59 Corrie: So this week we are tackling a massive topic, yet again, something I think we are going to keep returning to again and again… Why are there SO MANY anthropomorphic animal characters tackling big issues in children’s literature?

1:17 Kelly: So when we first were talking about this topic as the podcast idea, its because I quite literally asked the question of ‘Why are there so many queer guinea pigs in kid lit?’ This happened right after I reviewed Jonathan Van Ness’s book “Peanut Goes for the Gold”, which is about a non-binary guinea pig, and then finding out that the Original Version of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding”, originally featured a family of guinea pigs as the protagonist

1:54 Ale: Yeah! And “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” is notable because it was one of the first mainstream childrens books about gay marriage, but it was with guinea pigs originally, the new release has human people getting married and “Peanut Goes for the Gold” is very notable because it’s one of only the smallest handful of own voices books with a non-binary protagonist that is out there right now.

2:26 Corrie: Exactly. So while we are having a bit of a laugh about the prevalence of queer guinea pigs, this is actually a really major topic to dig into. Why are we passing off these important discussions about human beings and softening them by using anthropomorphized animals in the discussion? There are actually SO many books, notably a huge percentage of LGBTQ+ representations in children’s lit that do this, “Marlon Bundo”, “Worm Loves Worm”, “Red: A Crayon’s Story”, and “Tango Makes Three” (even though this is an actual true story)… and “Not Quite Narwhal” which is it’s whole own discussion that we’re gonna get into. 

3:07 Kelly: Yeah, this is extremely prevalent throughout many big topics and I often personally view it as a softening for adults reading the story more so than it is for the kids. Kids are incredible smart and usually trust that when their parents or teachers are telling them it’s something that’s ok, they can handle two humans of the same gender or sex getting married or learning about pronouns with actual people… and they can relate to it so much better. 

3:38 Ale:We really don’t need divider to keep it seperate from what is, what people are doing, we don’t need to have them as rabbits, children can handle them as humans, and really so can we. Can’t we handle that? And we’re not saying that all animal books are not good books, there is definitely a time and a place for them and perhaps the time and place for them and some of our favourite ones at home are anthropomorphised books, but the time and place for them  isn’t discussing racism and lgbtq+ identities and serious issues. 

4:20 Corrie: And this isn’t just about guinea pigs either… it extends to unnaturally coloured people like in the Todd Parr books, and many others. Or using Animals to explain accepting differences like “Giraffes Can’t Dance” or “Stella Luna.” And like with Todd Parr, I personally don’t care for him, but I know a lot of kids really like the bright colors. I’ve definitely worked with teachers who love his books and always do a related art project in his style. With Todd Parr I think the messages of his books are good, I am just not crazy about the art, it’s not super engaging to me. But I wanna ask you two, do you think this counts as non-human representation in a book, because the people are fantastical colors, or does it count as human representation?  

5:13 Kelly: Yeah I think there is something lost in the message when you make these purple people that don’t really represent anyone in real life. It doesn’t express that there is a dominant group that systemically oppresses another group and names who they are. The Blue people and the Red people should just get along kumbuya lalala – I don’t think that a child can take that and understand that message in a holistic way. When a white child carries a greater privilege solely because of their skin colour over their peers that are of the global majority. There’s just something lost, to me in those books that are just, green and yellow and purple people. 

5:58 Ale: Right it just turns it into a “kid’s story” a fantastical story, it’s not really teaching them anything about the reality which is what it’s supposed to be doing in this case. But you know, so with all this said.. And we clearly all get a little heated about this topic there actually are some books that we love that tackle big issues with non-human characters and we are going to get to those but first I just want to get some categories straight because I find it’s very helpful to sort things, especially when it comes to tackling huge genres like animals in children’s books.  And it is helpful to consider that there are really Three major kinds of animals in Fictional Picture books.  (So of these three I am excluding non-fiction, like National Graphic you know ‘this is a snake and this is what snakes eat’ I’m not talking about that.) So just in picture books there are three categories you are going to find.

Category one is Wild: so the animals are animals, they live in their natural habitats, they do normal animal things, but sometimes in the writing the author will give them a voice or like thoughts in a human language. So that’s number one! 

7:31 Ale: Category two gets a little more silly, I like to think of this as the “Wildly silly category’ These are the books where the animals are in their natural habitats, doing really weird stuff, and usually can speak, these are usually ridiculous. “The Little Pig The Bicycle and The Moon”  

7:50 Coco: I have to interject here and say that I  literally thought you made the title of that book up until I read more of your thoughts while we were working on developing this episode. 

8:06 Kelly: Seriously I have never heard of that book but it doesn’t sound real haha

8:09 Ale:  No it’s true, and it’s a REALLY GOOD BOOK hahahaha it’s a 2018 book by a Quebecois author Pierette Dubee and it was translated from French to English and it’s published by Margaret K. Mcelderry a boutique imprint of Simon & Schuster. So maybe the French to English makes it sound a little more out there but I recommend it. So that’s category two, the animals are a little out there but the animals are still animals, they live on the farm, the’re not walking around in sneakers…they are riding bicycles though…

8:51 Ale: Anyway category three is what I like to think of as Humans in Costumes because there is nothing happening that is any way what an animal would be doing.  So they’re wearing clothes they’re wearing shoes, they have a house, they go to school, they eat regular human food there’s nothing about the characters in this book that make them. Anything more than the fact that they have bunny ears really. 

9:21 Kelly: So I think we agree as a trio that the books that lie in category 3, the Humans in animal costumes that’s where we run into issues especially when you deal with moral lessons and books that deal with serious and important subject matter.  Because the reasoning for making the characters appear as animals is I think at least in part an attempt to either, soften a blow by creating a layer of separation between the reader and what is happening on the page, or an intentional decision to obscure issues of identity in regards to Race that might “complicate” a book. 

10:07 Ale: Yeah, because there’s not other reason that they’re animals. They don’t do animal things so why are they animals? They’re animals to hide what the book is talking about to make it less, controversial, less scary for the adults reading.  But there’s no reason for them to be animals! None!

10:31 Coco: But what is the motivation? What is the motivation to personify and anthropomorphise in the first place, what is the psychology here and what are the limitations? Why do we insist on anthropomorphizing animals? My personal theory is that people think that “big scary topics” are more palatable to parents, specifically, if the main characters are animals. The problem comes with the fact that it can soften the message so much that the point is lost. 

11:05 Ale: And like sometimes you read a book and you’re like what was the intention here? What were they thinking? What were they thinking about this? So like for example there is one called “What if Bunny is not a Bully” that just came out this year is depicted as a bunch of animals and it removes race and other kinds of human identifiers of income or ethnicity from the equation here, but it has all these animals in the school yard just like a bunch of kids and they’re discussing issues of bullying and interpersonal problems and working things out there’s a lot of drama.  But when you remove all of these signifiers of what a human person what groups they are part of when you remove that from playground politics the story doesn’t make sense and it’s turning the issues of bullying into this sort of, generic cloud idea where it’s like ‘everybody just be nice there’s no reason for anyone to be angry ever’ and it doesn’t make sense and I, I just feel like they’re trying to ignore the reality of race ethnicity, income, ability, all these things ath are factors in why kids have problems getting along or whatever and just totally by passing it which doesn’t make sense to me.  

12:49 Kelly:  Right so how can you get across a moral lesson and ask a kid to apply it to their real life when they can’t see themselves or their peers in it. That brings me to another book … and I am not trashing this book because we genuinely do love this book as a story and we read it all the time… I just deeply believe it misses the mark…

13:13 Coco:I know what book you are talking about. Haha

13:15 Kelly:  Okay, so I have to bring up Not Quite Narwhal which we mentioned at the top of the show. but I read this book literally dozens upon dozens of times before someone told me that it was meant to be about non-binary identities. And like I am a queer human who grew up in the community and have non-binary friends and I just fully missed all that subtext. It all makes sense in hindsight of course but the message is just so lost in a story about a unicorn who discovered that someone threw an oxygen tank on them and sunk them under the ocean to live with narwhals in some strange experiment. I mean I am exaggerating but like It’s not a straightforward line from that sillness to talking to kids about how the gender binary is a social construct…

14:04 Ale: And like we have that one on the Moonlite Projector, which by the way we love.  But I also wonder like what is happening in this book? I didn’t get that this is the meaning of this book, I didn’t get that this is what they’re going for. But come to think of it who is refilling that oxygen tank for this unicorn under the water? It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I feel like this book and this subtext here that it’s trying to get across does not really belong in the 2020 time period, it’s more like from the good olden days-or not good- the olden days where you have everything hidden in subtext with like “Frog and Toad” and you’re like are they? Aren’t they? I don’t know. Nobody knows.

14:55 Coco: I agree here I am also  a queer human, and my spouse is non-binary and neither of us got that incredibly subtle message.  I like the book, even though the thought of oxygen tanks underwater freak me out, but that’s besides the point, it’s absolutely not a substitute for a book with human characters about being non-binary, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, what have you. 

15:22 Kelly:  Yeah and like, there is like a time and place. I understand why Jonathan Van Ness used a guinea pig as the protagonist for “Peanut Goes for the Gold”  because it’s authentic to him and his story, and it’s a super notable book because its one of the biggest traditionally published largest marketing released, own-voiced non-binary childrens books there has ever been. But would I have loved it more if it was a non-binary human who really just wanted to do a super jazzy gymnastics floor routine and use they/them pronouns? Like yeah. yeah I would! 

16:00 Coco: Same, and I am also so glad that they took the original version of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” into reality from guinea pig guncles to a couple of handsome gents? Super jazzed! Because now, how many more children will be able to read that book and actually see their family reflected in that book now? Especially having the uncles be exemplifying an interracial marriage! I love that representation too and instead of stretching their imagination to wonder if “mom is reading this guinea pig book to talk about uncle Bob and his lifelong roommate uncle Paul.” It would just sneak in there. Like we all have that relative. I have many of them. I am that one. 

16:50 Kelly:Yeah! Which, by the way every time I hear of the roommate thing, reminds me of the very vintage “Daddy’s roommate” because it was lightyears ahead of its time and has humans it’s hilariously outdated now. But if you haven’t heard of this book go look for it. It’s amazing… I should really do a live reading some time on our Instagram.. Maybe I will on the picture bookstagram instagram account. I know books like that and the original Uncle Bobby’s wedding got banned rather frequently, and actually “Daddy’s Roomate” as well. They got banned really frequently even with the guinea pigs protagonists at the end of the day, I am not sure it truly softened the blow. Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Books like “Not Quite Narwhal” and “Marlon Bundo” and “Worm Loves Worm”… they’e great books. I just have to work so much harder as a parent to turn them into conversations that are meaningful with my son and you know they are just so much more teachable, books with human characters, so much more teachable and easier conversation starters and they have a better relation to reality that a 4,5,6 year old can apply to life. 

18:13 Ale: But also I think also, with what you’re talking about with how “Uncle’s Bobby’s Wedding” was banned even with the guinea pigs when we talk about like twenty years ago, and the books that were coming out it makes sense that they had to hide these messages to avoid getting banned and people refusing to read them but we are coming into a time now when people are okay with this and it’s not going to get them banned anymore.  And people expect to see LGBTQ stories with humans, we’ve come into a time where we don’t have to hide that anymore anymore and I think that’s really great. We don’t need them to be guinea pigs. 

19:06 Kelly: Yeah we can move beyond the world of Frog and Toad living a secret Ernie and Bert roommate life in this day and age now. Like, it’s time. It’s time to stop hiding queer people in animal costumes.  

19:18 Coco: There is a few, on the topic of Lgbtq+ books, that use an animal and definitely get it more right, one that I can specifically think of is “Neither”-(by Airlie Anderson) this is an example of how I do think the animal metaphor actually helps kids understand being non-binary/gender nonconforming because it’s easier for them when they’re young (like 3 young) to understand the concept of “in the middle/neither” to be able to see two different animals mushed together. Because this sort of makes more sense to them conceptually to help describe this in the middle neither, not one or the other. But this definitely shouldn’t be the ONLY book read on the topic, it’s a good starting point (which honestly is where I think a lot of these books want to land but it doesn’t always work out).  And listen, I GET wanting to explain things to kids in an engaging way.  Like, I literally went to college and paid tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to do it.  And that’s how I know we need more HUMAN characters because at the end of the day that’s who kids are going to learn how to empathize with.  I don’t care if the tiger is sad and the white kid recognizes that.  I need that white kid, who is a potential oppressor, to empathize with and understand the struggle of marginalized people in society and figure out how to dismantle that. That is what I need.

21:04 Kelly: Yeah that’s what we all need and I think that books like, so much passion, like I can’t even get across how passionate all of us are about this, hahahahaha, so there’s books like “Noodlephant” which we love.

21:25 Ale: So good, so good.

21:26 Kelly: All of us love that book so so so much. And it has so many amazing messages about identity, protest, justice, and more and they all come across in an exceptionally clear way while still being a book about an Elephant who is passionate about pasta. The premise is silly and engaging but there is this class of kangaroos that are oppressing all the other animals and sending them to the zoo if they step out of line.. which is like the clearest metaphor for white supremacy and the prison system I’ve ever seen in a children’s book or ever seen in a children’s book… and then the book takes you through working through a solution for justice and gaining freedom from their kangaroo oppressors. It’s hopeful and has SO many discussion starters that draw clear lines to real life. 

22: 16 Ale: I think what wowed me the most with that one, aside from like the power to really enrage the reader, ‘cuz I was like really mad I was like ‘you get your pasta! You get it!’ It was how it showed that breaking the law is not necessarily the same thing as being bad which for children is like a mind blowing concept right there.

22:41 Kelly: Yes!! I completely agree with that. Laws are not always just. There are things that are legal that are not good.

22:49 Ale: and that is totally mind blowing for children because they are very into sorting things into good vs. bad and everything is concrete. But to explore this concept of justice and law, or people in power not being right.  Is totally foreign to them and is just so well done.

23:09 Coco: So well done and  I also think that “Noodlephant” was one of the best books that teaches kids about injustice and community organizing without being about a specific historical event.  It just sort of teaches the steps and what sort of needs to be involved. One of my favorite nuanced moments in the story is when some of the kangaroos see the unfair treatment of the other animals on tv but they’re not personally affected by it so they don’t do anything.  And one sentence was like ‘some of the kangaroos cared, but it didn’t really affect them,’ and this is such a wonderful metaphor for white privilege, and explaining this huge concept to young children.  It just opens the door to bigger and ongoing conversations.  The sequel called “Okapi Tales” coming out in the Fall and I’m SO excited for it.

24:10 Kelly:I am so excited for it.

24:12 Corrie: So excited, and so another book that I like with animals is “Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest”, which is again about community organizing and social action but with a flock of pigeons who don’t feel valued by their city, so they take action.  There’s even a super funny moment when Dr. Coo delivers a list of demands to the mayor, which sort of harkens back to carrier pigeon days.  The book also teaches about different roles that pigeons had throughout history, and it’s a really fun book overall. 

24:47 Kelly: I LOVE “Dr. Coo and the Pigeon Protest” which you introduced me to Corrie and I love. Again I think what is so much more successful about those two books is that they aren’t subtle about their actions – there are extremely loud and direct correlations to real life to facilitate conversations in engaging ways. You can see that someone is being treated unfairly and apply that to a situation in real life. Books like this honestly though they are exception rather than the rule in teaching moral lessons with animals though. 

25:30Ale:  Mhm I feel like one of the big differences with these ones in the particular is they’re not trying to soften anything.  Yes there are animals in the books but they use them to understand there’s difference between two groups and then it kind of explores from there. Rather than saying ok we have a message and we would like to diffuse it, with some animals, we would like to make it more palatable to everybody with bunny ears, yes that is a good idea. But one more aspect that I got really interested in when preparing for this episode, I got really interested was the context of anthropomorphic books in history and the psychology behind why humans personify objects at all.  

26:19 Kelly: I am so excited to hear more about what you have been researching on this topic because this is all new to me! 

26:25 Corrie: Yeah you are definitely our expert Ale on the historical context of all this for sure.

26: 32 Ale: So I went down a rabbit hole of articles on the subject…

26:35 Corrie: Unintended? Ha ha.

26:38: Well I go through a lot of rabbit holes on the internet like, you know, it’s like one in the morning you know how it goes.  But if you’re interested in learning more about personification and anthropomorphisation in literature and psychology and you can find links in the show notes.  Now I actually was kind of disappointed with the answers that I found, because I was expecting to find out something about in our brains that makes humans want to do this, to create stories with animals cuz it’s kind of a strange thing to do when you think about it’s not that intuitive.  But I didn’t really find anything as definitive as I would of liked.  I can tell you that within story telling, oral and in literature it’s ubiquitous throughout time even before the written word. It is something that’s existed in every culture. And when you’re looking at picture books or any book or piece of art you really are viewing it as one piece in the context of a much large chain or link of other art pieces that exist around it.  Nobody creates art in a vacuum which I why I’m really interested in the context here, it must have something to do with why people are making them now. And when it comes to picture books right now, in English in the Western tradition which is what we mostly look at here a lot of what is informing us are classic stories like fairy tales and fables in this case.  So the most famous being “Aesop’s Fables” which you’ve probably heard of and they’re attributed to an enslaved Greek man named Aesop who lived some time between 620 and 564 Before Common Era so we’re talking about thousands and thousands of years ago, and there are tons of other examples that have been big influences in literature in other places of the world. For example the Jataka Tales legends of Buddha with animal fables from the 4th century. Or very famous Anansi tales which originated in West Ghana and spread in the 1500’s when enslaved people were brought to the Carribean and the Americas. Or also mythology surrounding the animals of the Chinese Zodiac which originated in the 5th century Before Common Era. So like thousands and thousands of years, humans have been creating stories where they are anthropomorphising animals.  

29:42 Kelly: This is fascinating. 

29:44 Corrie: So in the context of the traditions of writing and what we expect children to read, it makes that publishers and the authors feel like writing about anthropomorphized animals might be a natural thing to do.

30:00 Kelly:   Yeah, so yea so, that’s my takeaway and sort of answers how the history is informing current production but not why people use it in the first place. 

30:12 Ale: Yeah, so, I could tell you, you know, exactly how it’s been done in many different places but the real question is why do it at all.  Why is this a thing?  So I started to look into the psychological articles from that perspective and there didn’t seem to be a lot of real consensus on that issue. So some of the articles say that it is simply part of human nature and the ontology of the child, which is like the nature of the child, it’s just a big fancy word, ha. But like they couldn’t really tell me why.  And then other articles were saying that actually no, from the perspective of anthropology it is in fact not a natural thing to do at all because it’s ridiculous why why would a rock have a personality? And the only reason it’s possible is because humans find it so shocking so they spread the stories and they kind of disseminate over time. But at the end of the day I can’t tell you exactly what in our brains makes this a thing. However I can tell you it has been shown to improve learning and combat loneliness. Like Wilson the ball from that movie “Cast Away?” Haha and maybe some people have named something in their house I dunno like their plants, some people do that.

21:43 Kelly: Maybe they named their plant that’s a normal thing that sometimes people do.

21:45 Corrie: It’s a completely normal thing.

31:49 Ale:That’s what I’m saying, it’s a completely normal, according to half of the psychologists, the other half apparently don’t think it’s completely normal.

31:59 Kelly: I’m gonna go with the first half 

32:01 Coco: That’s fine. So I guess you don’t think it’s a genre that gonna disappear anytime soon then.

32: 07 Ale: No. I think this is probably something is always gonna be part of human storytelling I mean eventually we’ll probably do a lot more robots I think that’s the next steps.

32:19 Coco:  and it can exist and be entertaining and useful but it on it’s own is not enough to teach kids about the modern world and all of its inequalities and nuances.   

32:33 Kelly:  Right, so there is a historical context that informs the present, I think we also understand that there is this adult squeamishness that informs why we are white washing big topics with animals and trucks and things. But I think there is also some laziness – like we are going through this radical shift right now and finally people are paying more attention and I am hoping this is the shift that removes some of that laziness and gets authors and illustrators to step up to the plate and stop watering down their messages. 

33:06 Coco: Yeah I think searching online for children’s books about “differences” has radically changed in the last month or so too.  It’s gone from a lot of animal books to hardly any, which I think is a fascinating shift. Even doing research for examples for this podcast I’ve noticed a shift. Because we are literally seeing a publishing revolution right now, and I think that’s really cool.  Do I want things to change quicker and immediately right now? Absolutely I do, and I hope that the work I do and you both do can help that along because I also believe in baby steps, because there won’t be a systemic shift until there’s a mind shift.  The tides are turning, but I would prefer a tsunami situation, just like a tidal wave.

34:02 Kelly: Absolutely

34:04 Ale: I mean part of the problem isn’t the lack of interest, clearly people are looking for, consumers are coming, they’re saying ‘hey we want the books that have the people in them’ but the publishers just don’t have them and part of the problem is the publisher turn around for a book is like two years.  So like already they’ve already planned for two years from now, so how long is it going to take them to keep up with this entire societal shift in what people want? I don’t know? I think this is really the time that the self published authors really try and step up to the plate here. Because there’s just this vacuum here, and someone’s gotta fill it.  

34:50 Kelly: Yeah I think I’m seeing the shift in publisher and the conversations I’ve had with publishers over the last weeks but we’re not going to see it until 2021 and beyond. What I think can happen more immediately is that marketing budgets are going to change, because book success or failure is predicated on its marketing budget so I think a lot of books with BIPOC characters and queer characters they don’t get the same marketing budget often. So that’s I think the quicker shift that we’re going to see. It’s really a shame that the publishing industry is so slow and that’s why the first wave is going to be self published books… which can often lack quality and especially sensitivity so we will have to tread very carefully. 

35:46 Ale: Honestly Self-publishing is a fascinating topic we talk about together on our own together all the time.

35:54 Kelly: Almost daily.

35:55 Ale: Almost daily! Ha ha. But we’re definitely going to talk about that more here, but we don’t have enough time tonight for that.

36:05 Coco: I think this is a good place to put a pin in the topic for now. I really think we need to have a future episode just about the extreme prevalence of bears in picture books, haha. Or honestly that could be its own podcast? We could talk forever. Anyway! We want to thank you for joining us in our discussion about tackling big topics with animals in picture books here on the Picture Bookstagang podcast. You can follow us on instagram at @picturebookstagang and be sure to subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts! Be sure to drop us a note and let us know – What are you reading?

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