For the past twenty years or so, Pip Squeak the mouse has held a spell over me.
Pip Squeak Joins the Band is a picture book chronicling preparations for a festival in the sylvan village of Oak Wood. The reader follows a young woodland mouse who longs to play his piccolo with the town band.
As far as children’s books go, it’s just one of thousands of tales about talking animals scurrying around the forest, wearing doll-sized dresses and breeches, dealing with crafty predators (a ubiquitous lesson: never trust a fox). But something about its soft, gorgeous, richly-colored, and detailed illustrations and its jovial, stalwart characters captured my heart and mind.
Pip Squeak wasn’t the only animal I loved spending time with. My siblings and I adored Richard Scarry’s books (how could you not hold a soft spot in your heart for Huckle the Cat and his trusty friend Lowly the Worm?). I never got tired of The Poky Little Puppy and I still feel a delicious prickle of fear encountering the terrifying rats in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. As the years went by I lost myself in countless hours of battle in the Redwall series, listened to Charlotte’s Web read aloud, and rooted for the field mice in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
Recently, though, I was discussing children’s literature with someone who expressed skepticism about the merit of animal stories. Our conversation forced me to mull over a premise I’d always taken for granted: that animal stories are an invaluable part of the children’s literature canon. But why? Why choose a story about mice when you have the complexity and relatability of human stories? We look to children’s literary characters to model lives of courage, kindness, and cleverness or warn us through their mistakes. How does a child learn from a mouse’s example? When it comes to story-telling, what do animals have to offer that humans don’t?
There is no strict need, I suppose, to write stories about spiders who weave words out of web to protect their friends, or rabbits who disobey their mother’s directives and barely escape an angry farmer’s clutches, or toads who have a destructive lust for automobiles. Similar plot lines with humans as protagonists could function just as well in getting a message across. I admit that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that I find delight in reading Brian Jacques’s pages-long descriptions of Redwall feasts—descriptions that, if they were about humans, I would skip.
But in this lies the beauty of animal tales. Their appeal doesn’t fully make sense and yet they hold immense, captivating power. Humans crave mystery and magic, stories that incarnate the impossible. Animal stories do just that. They are often a child’s first exercise in learning to see and consider things from a foreign perspective—to put oneself in the shoes of a squirrel certainly requires strength of both the imagination and empathy.
To put oneself in the shoes of a squirrel certainly requires strength of both the imagination and empathy. Maria Bonvissuto
Whimsical art and literature often receive a bad rap. They’re dismissed as fluff, stuff to move on from once you’re old enough to appreciate “real” stories. But the whimsy that animal tales offer is anything but shallow. It embraces the hidden enchantment of the ordinary world and lifts us out of cynicism and jadedness. It gives us fresh eyes to see that life is a gift and an adventure, one in which anything can happen and nothing is impossible. Hope and faith reign. And children seem to learn best how to nourish this sense of the possible, this faith in the wonder and beauty of life, through stories about something that indeed seems impossible—animals that walk, talk, wear quaint country clothes, bake pies and hold feasts, wave swords in their enemies’ faces, and at the end of the day settle down to sleep in their cozy tree-root homes.
I once heard someone describe reading fiction as playful contemplation. This kind of contemplation forms the heart of animal stories. They’re windows through which we drink in the goodness of the natural world, its immense beauty and its drama—a drama that we all too often miss. It’s also a reminder that God gave us the universe out of his abundance and generosity and creativity. Certainly the natural world is immensely useful, but our Creator fashioned it simply for our wonder and delight as well. Animal stories reflect this reality. Perhaps an adventure story featuring boys or girls would do just fine, and there are many good ones out there. But skipping the stories about animals deprives us of a particular world that offers its own particularly poignant beauty and charm.
Perhaps we’re drawn to animal stories because they carry an echo of a prelapsarian world. They touch on a primeval relationship, the deep friendship that man originally had with nature. Adam knew each of the animals intimately—he named them, after all. Children, in their innocence, naturally connect back to a time when Adam and Eve really did walk with animals. Perhaps the appeal of animal stories is rooted in a longing to go back to that original innocence. Perhaps it’s a foretaste of what’s to come in eternity. But there’s no question that traces of the original bond between human and beast still linger in the pages of animal stories.
From Pip Squeak to Babar the Elephant, there’s a whole cast of animals waiting to welcome us into their marvelous world. Let’s join them.