Rx for Writers

Writing Tips - Story Characterization

Jan Fields, ICL web editor,  has published in many and varied children’s and family magazines including Boys’ Quest, Highlights For Children, Shining Star, Crayola Kids, Ladybug, Single-Parent Family and Charisma-Life.  Though she began her career writing for adults exclusively, she was soon lured into the challenging world of children's writing. Jan has taught adult and children’s writing for over twenty years. In addition to this busy schedule, Jan co-moderates the busiest Internet mailing list for children’s writers and is the editor of Kid Magazine Writer e-magazine. She is a member of the SCBWI and a repeat speaker at local SCBWI conferences. Her articles about writing have been published both in print and online markets such as Keystrokes, Byline, Children’s Writer, and Children’s Book Insider. In her spare time, she sleeps.

"Talking Animal Stories"

by Jan Fields

Kids love to pretend and most of them love animals (at least as a concept even if they're a bit squeamish in real life). Publishers know this. But certain myths have grown up around animal stories for very young readers that can create problems for writers hoping to write them.
Some believe it is easier to write talking animal stories than "real life" stories.
Some believe anything goes in a talking animal story.
Some believe a story becomes more fun if you change all the people into animals.
Some believe talking animal stories can be "people in animal clothes."
In reality, none of these things is true. Writing the talking animal story is as challenging as any other fiction and it must abide by certain rules depending up where you hope to publish.

Talking Animals and Young Children

For magazines, most young children's fantasy features talking animals. This is good news for the writers who love writing about talking animals. However, the markets for these stories are limited and there is stiff competition for the publishing spots available.

For a talking animal story to succeed, editors expect certain rules to be followed:

(1) talking animals usually live in a world different from our own,
(2) talking animals never talk to humans and rarely encounter them in the stories,
(3) talking animals do not have alliterative names,
(4) talking animals are never violent.
(5) talking animals retain their physical form and some animal characteristics.

Let's look at each of these individually.

Talking animals usually dwell in a very different world. They often wear clothes, live in houses, and have jobs. They usually have friends from other species, often without regard to whether the animals would "associate" in real life. Nearly any animal can qualify -- Spider once ran a mystery with a detective team of a lizard and an iguana cracking the case of the missing cockroach munchies. Ladybug ran a story about a forgetful elephant's child. Highlights has had singing alligators, bears who make bird feeders, a mouse looking for a safe home, and house cleaning ducks. Humpty Dumpty ran a story about a mouse who didn't want to be late for lunch with her friend, Skunk. Turtle ran a story about an elephant who couldn't find her whisper and one about a duck who discovers a lost picnic. Of all these stories, the mouse looking for a home, the singing alligator, and the forgetful elephant lived in a natural setting. The others in habited a world where they were the house-dwelling, school-going, child-like residents.

Why would an author choose to use animals in place of people if the story is so much like real life? This is often a cure for the "story about adults." An adult animal can have a job and live alone in a house but still be very childlike in attitude and actions. Thus the fantasy animal story expands the options for setting and situation while still keeping the kid-appeal of a story with young characters.

The more human the animal, the more you need to keep out the real humans. Many writers want to create stories with talking pets that converse with their young owners. Although some book publishers have bought books about animals that talk to people (Walter Brooks Freddie the Pig series is a classic example), most of the examples you'll find in libraries are older books, as this is a form that has fallen out of favor. Animals who talk to people is also something you will not find in magazines for children. It is rare for talking animal stories to include people at all and when they do, the animals and people do not converse.

Talking animals tend to have built-in cuteness. Because of this, editors are careful not to buy stories that are too precious. One way they avoid this is to insist animals not have alliterative names. In fact, the most common name for a talking animal in a story is his species name -- a duck is often named Duck and a bear would be named Bear. When an animal does have a specific name, the name is often a play on the animal's personality, like a mouse named Squeak. Or the name might simply be a funny word, such as a rabbit named Rutabaga.

The real world of animals is a violent one. As adults we know that, but in talking animal stories for magazines, this is not the case. Even "cartoon violence" such as mean pranks will usually earn a rejection letter. Because talking animals are usually surrogates for the reader themselves, they will not model violent behavior, even if such acts would be "natural" for the real animal. In picture books, you will sometimes find talking animals who do play pranks or get involved in potentially hazardous acts, but these books are usually targeting the school-aged picture book market and the language and tone will reflect the sophistication of these older readers.

Sometimes talking animals can seem very human, but a writer must not forget he is dealing with animals. A duck can't have fingers. A Spider will need more than two shoes. A writer who remembers an animal's natural "animalness" and makes it an important part of the story will make a much quicker sale than a writer who merely switches her human child characters into bears. This also means that when you want your talking animals to closely mirror a specific age of childhood, you do so with the animal's actions, dialogue and thoughts -- not by telling the reader that "Pickles is a five-year-old mouse." A five-year-old mouse is actually quite elderly so exact ages do not work in animal stories.

As with any kind of story, the best way to sell talking animal stories is to read them. Luckily many public libraries carry Spider, Highlights and Turtle (three of the top markets for talking animal stories) and you can read sample talking animal stories online at Clubhouse Jr.


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