Using Animal Characters in Picture Books by Clare Helen Welsh

Animal characters are hugely popular in
picture books and there are many reasons why creators star them in their
stories. But what are the pros and cons of using animal characters vs human characters
and what do we need to know?

After being invited to talk about animals
in picture books at a really fun #ukpbchat event, I put all my thoughts down in
a post for Picture Book Den. And because I have a talent for making things more
complicated than they need to be, I’ve arranged them in a suitable acrostic


Animals often come with pre-packaged
personalities. For example, foxes are thought to be sly, bears live in caves,
mice are small and eat cheese. When creating a picture book character these are
useful because they can help a character feel familiar to a child. The advantage
of this is that young children can open a book and quickly get a sense of the story.
Picture book characters need to be relatable, so using archetypes can help.

However, the market is flooded with books
that include foxes, bears, dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and wolves. I find there’s
something exciting about subverting archetypes and turning these stereotypes on
their head to create something new and more original.


(Note: It might be worth bearing in mind
that there could be a very good reason why some animals do not feature highly
as picture book characters! For example, pigs and hedgehogs might not have the
global appeal publishers are looking for.)


Animals are cute, engaging, fascinating
and lots of fun to read about! For these reasons, animal characters are
a great place to start if you’re looking to write non-fiction picture books.
This was how my foray into non-fiction began and I have now sold five non-fiction
narrative texts about animals. They can be funny, poetic or anything in between.
Here’s one of mine that came out most recently. It’s the first in a series with
MacMillan, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne.


Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics or
behaviour to an animal or objec
and it’s
a little bit marmite with publishers as far as I can gather.
I’ve written picture books where the animals speak and wear clothes, and
some where they do not. I have some where humans and animals talk to each other,
and some where no one talks. There really is a huge range.
It would be worth researching the kinds of books a publisher has
on their list to see where they sit on the
anthropomorphic scale. And do bear (Ha!) in
mind that it can vary depending on what type of picture book you’re looking at.

For one of my non-fiction stories publishing in 2021, I was asked to tweak lines that anthropomorphised the
animal protagonist, too much. On the other hand, Lenny is publishing with a different publisher and is a walking, talking ring-tailed
lemur on holiday in South America! However, I do know that Nicola was asked to
make the style realistic and she worked tirelessly on the setting to ensure authenticity,
the reason being that biologically accurate books help children to learn and
retain knowledge about the animals involved.


We’ve established that animal
characters are instantly relatable and come with their own set of character
traits that authors can use and subvert. ‘This Book has Alpacas and Bears’ by
Emma Perry and Rikin Parekh is a great example of subverting the trope that
bears make great book characters. Rikin’s illustrations are a suitable witty
match for Emma’s text.  Jim Field and
Kes Gray’s ‘Oi’ series and Mo Willem's Pigeon books are also packed with giggles!


Animals are easy to empathise with –
everyone can see themselves in an animal character. The potential for animal
characters is that all children can see themselves in books. That’s not to say
they should be replacing diverse human characters. NOT AT ALL. We desperately
need to see more diverse human characters in children’s stories and the industry
appears to be slowly moving towards representing and celebrating different
backgrounds. There's much more work to be done, but certainly one of the positives of
animal characters is that they are inclusive.


Historically, animals are often
referred to as masculine. It’s always worth looking at your characters to see
which sexes they identify with. How many of your stories have female protagonists?
Male? Are animal main characters more or less likely to be male? I made a
little table of my published texts. The results were surprising!

Animal protagonist

Human protagonist

Female protagonist



Male protagonist



Androgynous (at point of submission)



These are published (or soon to be)
titles. I’d hope that in my desktop files there are more books with female,
animal protagonists. Michelle Robinson and Deborah Allright have created a great
example of how to switch up stereotypes in She Rex! Also look out for Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Diane Ewen's, 'Never Show a T-Rex A Book,' which features a female dinosaur character.

Safe spaces:

A big positive of using animal main
characters, is that creatives can use the distance between the child reader and
protagonist to explore darker and more scary themes. In Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egneus’ new book
for example, children learn what happens to our bodies when we die, prompting all
kinds of conversations about life issues. Here’s the blurb:

‘In the
frost-covered forest of early spring, fox is on a mission to find food for her
three cubs. As they grow, she teaches them how to survive in the wild. Until
one day, fox dies. Her body goes back to earth and grass and air, nourishing
the world around her and bringing the forest to life. Death is not just an end,
it's also a beginning.

This feels less hard-hitting than it
would were the main character a human, of course. Animal protagonists are a way
of creating distance, allowing creatives the freedom to tackle themes and
issues that may be too confronting with human characters. This is the case for Donna David and Laura Watkin's picture, 'Oh no, Bobo!' which has a gentle message about consent. 

In summary, children’s books of all
kinds have long contained animal characters and I can’t see that trend
disappearing any time soon. Animals spark wonder in children and
provide potential for beautiful, funny and engaging illustrations. But it is
worth thinking carefully about the animal you choose, making sure they star in
your story for all the right reasons. 

BIO: Clare is the author of over 30 books for
children, that star both animal and human main characters.
She writes fiction and
non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. She
currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Andersen, Nosy Crow
and MacMillan so watch this space
You can find out more about her at her website or
on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh .

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