Melissa Baron is a writer living near Chicago who works in the world of publishing. She shares her observations, insights, and opinions about books at her blog: miskadoodlewrites.wordpress.com. Today she shares a short trip down memory lane with the tail-sporting heroes of classic children’s books.
We’ve all, at one time or another, wondered what the world would be like from an animals’ perspective, and contemplated how wicked cool it would be if animals could talk. All right, maybe more so when we were children versus now, but there’s a reason Disney and Pixar films featuring animals draw in just as many adults as children (not including said children’s parents). Or is that just my friends and I? Anyone? *crickets chirping* All right, moving on.
Anthropomorphizing animals is like the greatest thing ever, and shows up everywhere; films (Land Before Time, oh man does anyone remember those movies? The first one makes me cry. Every. Single. Time), television shows, comics, books. I’m particularly interested in books centered on them, especially when the animals are the stars, and not just side characters, a la the Cheshire Cat or the White Rabbit in Alice In Wonderland. There are many, many out there, so I’m going to count down my favorites. Let’s tap into that inner child and geek out a bit over our favorite animal heroes, shall we?
So come along with me!
The Wind and the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
My adoration of this book started early. I had a large copy of it with gorgeous illustrations as a child, and the characters were so rich and distinctive. Badger reminded me of my grandfather; brisk yet kind, protective, a non-lover of nonsense. It always tickled me when Mole called Rat ‘Ratty,’ and Toad – well.
“There was a long, long pause. Toad looked desperately this way and that, while the other animals waited in grave silence. At last he spoke.
‘No!’ he said a little sullenly, but stoutly; ‘I’m not sorry. And it wasn’t folly at all! It was simply glorious!’
‘What?’ cried the Badger, greatly scandalized. ‘You backsliding animal, didn’t you tell me just now, in there-‘
‘O, yes, yes, in there,’ said Toad impatiently. ‘I’d have said anything in there … I find that I’m not a bit sorry or repentant really, so it’s no earthly good saying I am now, is it?'”
Toad was a silly fool you just wanted to shake sense into, but you couldn’t help but laugh at his antics. He was lucky to have friends like Mole, Rat, and Badger to help save him from himself. It amazed and warmed me that they never gave up on him, never threw up their hands and tossed in the towel on Toad.
The Bunnicula books were my go-to reads during all of fourth grade. I loved Chester, Harold, and Howie, and the assortment of pets they met at Chateau Bow-Wow – or rather, the Howliday Inn. I wanted a snotty little cat that would read my books when I was gone, and a bunny with fangs (I could do without an excitable Dachshund, though). I did have a bunny for awhile that year, but Petrie wasn’t nearly as cool as Bunnicula, being the average sort of flop-eared rabbit and not a vampire.
Never read these books on an empty stomach. Nearly every novel, especially the ones that actually take place in Redwall Abbey, has three or four huge meals where every scrumptious thing on the table is described. Fruit tarts, applecream puddings, cakes, candied chestnuts, hazelnut bread, strawberry cordial – and now my stomach’s growling. I had a fine time deciphering the dialogue of the some of the animals with their strange dialects, like the moles. I mean:
‘Coom on, ole zurr, wakey oop, ee toald oi to wake ee if’n ee gurt cake was a burnen in ee h’oven!’
(Outcast of Redwall)
I’m not…what? I was thirteen, squinting at the pages, and I felt like the characters, who probably just shrugged, satisfied with getting the gist of whatever the mole was saying, and leaving it at that. Each book served to explore more and more of the animals’ world; I love how meticulously Brian Jacques interconnected the novels. The culture and history of the animals is just massive. And apparently badgers are just fierce magnificent beasts in whatever book or series they’re found in, because they’re pretty righteous in the Redwall series, too. My favorites, other than the one that started it all, naturally, are Mossflower (Tsarmina is such a cool, insane villain), Mattimeo, Marial of Redwall, and Pearls of Lutra. My favorite heroes are Mara (from Salamandastron), Martin, Matthias, and Mariel. I can’t think of many other series that made me root so hard for their main characters than this one.
I recently reread this one, and I took my time to absorb the sheer amount of depth Richard Adams gave his rabbits, and the research he put into it from rabbits’ natural behaviors. I’m still fascinated with their culture and dogma, the stories Dandelion would tell about their folk hero El-ahrairah and the rabbit god Frith. Watching Hazel transform into a true leader who could see the good and capabilities in all of his rabbits was a pleasure. I loved Bigwig’s dry sense of humor and his loyalty, and Blackberry’s outside of the box thinking. By far, my favorite character was Kehaar, the seagull; go on, read his dialogue out loud. Can’t keep a straight face, can you?
This book is so weird, y’all. Weird and sweet and charming and kind of sad. Winkie is like the bizarre grown up version of the Velveteen Rabbit, except that little bunny was never put on trial for terrorist attacks he wasn’t responsible for. What animates Winkie is a mystery, and the book is best enjoyed by taking the bizarre in stride, because his journey to clear his innocent name and become a free bear is worth a look see and quite emotional. I actually became upset for him at times, when I wasn’t laughing at the absurdity of it all. And that bear, man… oddest looking thing I’ve ever seen. I kind of want one.
It’s refreshing to me when foxes aren’t always portrayed as the conniving bad guys. Mr. Fox is conniving, sneaky, and quite an accomplished thief, but he’s also a caring husband and father, and you can’t help but root for him. The movie is also flat out amazing and hilarious, and I could watch it a dozen times and not get sick of those fantastic characters.
I apparently have a soft spot for talking rabbits. And badgers. What are your favorite animal heroes? Which have you loved from childhood, and which, if any, did you discover as an adult? Do you think there’s ever a time when reading about talking animals is too silly or juvenile, despite the universal messages that are often explored in novels like these? Or will you, like me, vehemently defend these books when people ask, or see the title and kind of smirk and say, aren’t you a little old for that?
Nope. Not at all. There’s always room on my bookshelves for vampire rabbits and sword wielding mice.