Research Project:  A Thematic Story Collection

Animal Stories: An Examination of Human Behavioral Characteristics Reflected in Animal Characters
Ann Hebisen
SLIS 5440
November 28, 2001

Thematic Description and Rationale for the Project:

Project Description:

Animals often appear in literature to simultaneously teach moral lessons and entertain readers, often while behaving like humans. This is an examination of children and youth literature on the use of animals portraying some type of human characteristics.  Throughout the ages stories using animals to reflect human character traits have been told and written in many different literary types.  From myth and folklore to poetry and contemporary fiction the assignment of human feelings and behavior to animals as is an accepted literary device that can be used with great effect.

This literary device is described as  personification.  Personification is a form of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to non human things. Personification offers the writer a way to give the world life and motion by assigning familiar human behaviors, qualities, and emotions to animals, inanimate objects, and abstract ideas or abstract concepts.  It is an excellent device for conveying pictures and ideas with few words.

Purpose of Project:

The purpose of this project is to show how animal stories can be effective tools to understanding, exploring, and reflecting on human behavior.

Locating Items:

Many of the items either members of my family or I own.  Others were chosen from using the index to Children's Literature in the Elementary School Sixth Edition (1997), by Huck, Hepler, Hickman, & Kiefer.  I also found many of the items on the Internet and used the Library of Congress catalog for obtaining bibliographic information on many of them.  All of the picture inserts were copied from the Internet and inserted rather than scanning and inserting simply because it is the easiest and fastest method of doing it.

Bibliographic Citations and Synopsis:

Fox, Mem (1988); illustrated by Pamela Lofts.   Koala Lou.  Melborne, Australia:  Ian Drakeford Publishing.
"There was once a baby koala so soft and round that all who saw her loved her. Her name was Koala Lou.  This young koala's mother loved her dearly and looked after her very carefully. Koala Lou forgets how much her  mother loves her as new children are  born into the family.  Longing to hear her mother speak lovingly to her as she did before other children came along, she plans to win her distracted parent's attention.  Koala Lou decided to enter the gumtree-climbing events of the Bush Olympics because koalas are very good at climbing. The thought of her mother saying "Koala Lou, I DO love you." keeps her going through the rigorous training and finally she is ready for the race.

Sibling rivalry, competitiveness, and maternal love are all shown in this rhythmically written story.  This is a touching story with emotion filled pictures that reminds us all the power of unconditional love.

Waddell, Martin (1991);  illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.  Farmer Duck.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Candlewick Press.
When a kind and hardworking duck nearly collapses from overwork, while taking care of a farm because the owner is too lazy to do so, the rest of the animals get together and chase the farmer out of town.  This replicates fairness and friendship.  When one individual is not being treated fairly the concept of justice arises and other members of a society can unite.

This story not only expresses the benefits of teamwork, but it also tells of the "big" help a small individual may be. This book has the potential to explain various social skills and the importance of working together. After many animals run the farmer off the land, they gain control and it becomes their farm.
This shows an appreciation for others' help and the rewards that come from working together. In addition, the story brings out other aspects such as work needed to run a farm, problem solving, setting, and character appearance.

This tale uses repetition and playful vocabulary creating an entertaining story out of a simple plot.  Because of the book's simplicity, this tale would have special appeal to young children. However, because of the importance of its message, one of  fairness, friendship, and teamwork, such a story could be beneficial to older elementary children as well.

Waddell, Martin (1992); illustrated by Patrick Benson.  Owl Babies.  Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press.
This book has strongly patterned text.  In it three baby owls wake up in their nest in a tree to find their mother gone. Two of them reassure each other and themselves that she's coming back, that she's just gone out to look for food, that she'll be back soon.  The third baby owl isn't interested in excuses or logic. He says over and over, "I want my mommy!"  There's a line most kids can relate to and it offers much opportunity for dramatic interpretation.   Another important feature of this book are the illustrations that make it a visually beautiful book.

Silverman, Erica (1994); illustrator S. D. Schindler.  Don't Fidget a FeatherNew York: Simon & Schuster.
Gander and Duck are so full of adoration that they hold contests to see who is the best swimmer and who can fly the highest.  When neither of these competitions has a clear winner, Duck suggest a freeze-in-place contest.  Through many distractions they don't "fidget a feather",  even when a fox takes the two back to his stew pot.  When the fox prepare to cook Gander, however, Duck decides that wining the contest is not as important as saving Gander's life.

Winning a contest is not as important than helping a friend.  This story offers a chance to consider the impulse to help another over the need to compete to be the best.

Avi, (1937); illustrated by Brian Floca.  Poppy New York : Orchard Books.
Poppy is a suspenseful thriller about a little mouse named Poppy, who must overcome her fears to save her family.  In order to do this she must come face to face with her most dreaded animal, Mr. Ocax, a great horned owl and ruler of the forest.  Poppy knows that she is the only mouse that could save her family from starvation, so no matter what the consequences are it would be worth a try.  This is a charmingly pictured fable that tests courage through a little field mouse.

This would be a great book to use any time of the year.  It could be real helpful in a class that was struggling with a certain problem or obstacle.  It shows the true test of courage and how to overcome obstacles.  It also would be great to offer to an individual child that may be discouraged. The story is so exciting it keeps the readers attention, but at the same time shows the underlying message of courage.


James, Will (1926).  Smoky the Cowhorse. Missoula, Montana:  Mountain Press Publishing Co., Inc.
(Winner of the 1927 Newbery Medal for children's literature)

Smoky, the Cowhorse is the story of a horse--from his first hours on the prairie sod to his final years out to pasture. Smoky grows up wild and wise to the ways to the range, fighting wolves and braving stiff winds.  Clint, a bronco-busting cowboy on the Rocking R Ranch, spots the spirited four-year-old and thinks it is the finest little horse he ever saw. Smoky knows only one way of life: freedom.  Living on the open range, he is free to go where he wants and do what he wants.  Being a smart colt, he learns what he must in order to survive.  He can beat any enemy whether it be a rattlesnake or a hungry wolf.  He is as much a part of the Wild West as it is of him, and Smoky can't imagine anything else.  .

With Clint he comes across a new enemy, one that walks on two legs and makes funny sounds.  Smoky can't beat this enemy like he has all the others.  He must decide if he really wants to beat this enemy, or could giving up some of his freedom mean getting something else in return that's even more valuable. After many adventurous years on the Rocking R, Smoky mysteriously disappears, only to turn up later as an outlaw bucking horse on the rodeo circuit.

This book would be great to use anytime and it shows the relationships between people and animals.  The reader follows the story--from range to ranch to rodeo--through Smoky's eyes. We feel his terror of man, his struggle against the rope, his growing love for turning cows, and his anger when mistreated.

O'Brien, Robert C. (1971); illustrator Zena Bernstein.  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  New York, Atheneum.
 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) is primarily about Mrs. Jonathan Frisby, widowed fieldmouse
driven to heroic efforts to save her sick child, Timothy.  Plowing day is swiftly approaching, and Timothy is not
recuperating quickly enough; if he is moved, he will likely die.  If they stay, the farmer's plough will destroy their home.  Despairing, she tries a last hope:  she turns to the strange, reclusive rats who inhabit the rosebush. To her surprise, they agree to help her when they discover she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, whose disappearance has always been a mystery to her.

It turns out that the rats and Mr. Frisby, who had died in a heroic effort,  had been part of an experimental group at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the series of injections that they got not only enhanced their mental abilities but prolonged their life span. The rats have escaped from an attempt to exterminate them by NIMH labs and establish a utopian society away from man.

How the rats help Mrs. Frisby and she, in turn helps them from being captured, is told in a thoroughly enjoyable animal fantasy that seems almost believable.  Readers can draw parallels to human endeavors and  the nature of ambition for all intelligent creatures.   This book is very creative and shows values, intuition, and maternal love.

Disney, Walt Productions (1942). BambiNew YorK: Grosset & Dunlap.
Bambií books features excellent color illustrations and animation in the film version.  The story tells the simple, timeless story of a deer growing up in the wild. During the first spring he is born and experiences life as a young fawn. Before the year is over his mother is killed. The next year, Bambi grows up, experiences romantic love, and becomes the "Great Prince" of the forest with young ones of his own.

All the animals of the forest learn about life and growing up as individuals. The characters in the story show many human characteristics of emotion, relationships, and physical changes in growing older.  It works for all ages and will touch almost anyone in any media.

Disney, Walt Production Studios (1994). The Lion King.  Directed by: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff.
The Lion King is the tale of Simba , the son of Lion King Mufasa . The birth of the new heir displaces the king's brother Scar, leading the envious Scar to plot the death of Mufasa and Simba. When Mufasa is killed while trying to save Simba, Scar convinces Simba he must go into exile. There Simba is befriended by meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, and grows to adulthood blissfully free of responsibilities. However, when childhood friend Nala  informs Simba that Scar is destroying the prideland, Simba must decide whether to keep his distance or to confront his demons ...and Scar.

This story is primarily about guilt and redemption. Simba, a young lion cub and heir to his father's throne, is led to believe that he was the cause of the king's death. The trauma caused by this is so great that Simba goes into exile, attempting to find peace-of-mind through anonymity in the company of a warthog and a meerkat. But it's never that easy to escape the past.... The film is most concerned with its young hero's coming-of-age, and the responsibilities that arrive with adulthood--including the need to confront guilt and its associated fear.

Disney, Walt Productions (1941).  Dumbo.
It's a big day at the circus when he stork delivers a pint-sized elephant to Mrs. Jumbo...but with his oversized ears the innocent newcomer is snubbed, and dubbed "Dumbo" by the other elephants.  With remarkable bravery and the encouragement of his loyal friend Timothy Mouse, Dumbo rises above it all, accomplishes the impossible and learns to fly.

Dumbo's unforgettable adventure is a heroic lesson for us all, providing friendship, love, and belief in oneself can overcome all odds.

Story Analysis:

Character Analysis
The stories using animal characters may cover one or more aspects of human behavior concerning cognitive, psychomotor, affective, and social domains as seen in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Farmer Duck.  The first thing most students think of when we mention character is character traits. Traits we most commonly think of in terms of adjectives descriptive of personality:  aggressive, kind, garrulous, loving, weak, strong, ambitious, proud, etc. The superficial level of analysis involves identification of these along with reference to details from the story that support our labels.

Archetype Analysis
In the psychological level, we may examine causes and effects of traits, whether the character changes or develops, effects of characters upon each other, motivations for choices -- the whys of choice and behavior and relationships -- the what-makes-him-tick aspect that is of far greater interest than mere labels.   With regard to physical activities there is a character assessment to what meaning was to be gained from any performed endeavors with relationship to human quest. Stories like Koala Lou, Poppy, and Dumbo are great examples of the archetypal elements with regard to motivations and behavioral choices. On the philosophical level, we may see implications of perspectives, choices, behaviors, and  relationships as with Bambi and The Lion King.

Symbolic Analysis
The animal characters, physical activities, and meanings within stories are used to represent humans and human endeavors.  Throughout any of the books or films the variations follow similar patterns of interpretation where the animals thoughts or actions are alike humans with outcomes that give true meaning to the story as a whole.  In many cases the symbolism is so strong that reading the text alone would sound like that of a human story and the realization that there were animal characters would not even be known to the reader.  Two good examples of this are Owl Babies and Don't Fidget a Feather.  Both show typical things young children may do.  In the higher level readings, as in Smoky the Cowhorse, even though the reader totally understands it is a horse's thoughts it still relates to how a person may feel when their freedom is being tested.

With my own interest in these animal related stories this research was enjoyable and productive.  I thought most of these type stories would only be in children's books, myths, fables, and folklore.  This research has shown me there is by far more stories written in this genre than I had previously thought.  One area that was not looked into was poetry, and that would be a area that this research could continue to seek out.  Overall the research shows that the animal exists for our pleasure, and at our pleasure.  These stories give a powerfully sustained moment of insight:  a shared existence between reader and subject, between person and animal.  It is important to note that animals abound in children and youth literature, television programs, videotapes and computer games.  Even for those who never share their home with a pet usually show a strong interest in creatures of all kinds.