Hybrids - Animal stories - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


31. Animal stories


Simon Flynn




I have left to last one of the most intriguing themes in animal stories, namely the hybrid and unstable nature of animal characters - the sense that they are presented as a confusing mix of ‘animal’ and ‘human’ and seem to exist in a liminal space in between the categories. As Hunt notes, in The Wind in the Willows ‘Badger is one second a real badger, rooting under a hedge and trotting forward, the next an elderly gentleman who “hates society” ’ (Hunt 1994: 52). Such oscillations are also evident in the work of Joel Chandler Harris and Beatrix Potter. In the Jungle Books, Kipling’s Mowgli is an unsettling hybrid figure. Despite appearing in only eight of the fifteen stories, Mowgli’s presence is significant because it constructs the division between human and animal produced in the text as both necessary and arbitrary (Walsh 2001: 31). But Mowgli’s presence is ambiguous. As Sue Walsh argues, ‘As a human child raised by wolves, Mowgli “the Frog’s” amphibious identity can be read as initiating a destabilising questioning of the relationship of the human to the animal’ (Walsh 2001: 31-2).

In The Wind in the Willows, it is Toad who best illustrates a similar ambiguity. Like Mowgli, Toad is another ‘amphibian’ figure (literally) that seems to slide between and trouble categories. Toad’s slipperiness is even apparent in the uncertainties of his social position (Hunt 1994: 69). It is, however, his encounters with the gaoler’s daughter and later the barge-woman which seem to trouble the boundaries between human and animal, in terms of the difference between how he sees himself and how he is seen by them (Hunt 1994: 71). In these episodes, Toad is a volatile mix of human and animal that does not fit into either category.

If Charlotte’s Web has become a modern classic of children’s literature, White’s earlier novel, Stuart Little (1945), has, despite being turned into a successful film and sequel, a more uncertain position. Stuart Little follows the adventures of the eponymous hero as he experiences life in New York and later as he embarks on a quest to find his beloved, the bird Margalo. Episodic and light-hearted in tone, from this synopsis it would be difficult to see why this book seems to cause disquiet among critics. It is, however, Stuart’s uncertain identity, not quite human and not quite ‘animal’, that seems to unsettle many readers. The book’s opening sentence informs us in a matter-of-fact way:


When Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.

(White 1984: 7)


Notably, White’s tricksy prose does not say Stuart is a mouse, merely that he ‘looked’ very much like one. Anne Carroll Moore, the head of the New York Public Library and a powerful influence on publishers, even tried to prevent the book’s publication on the grounds that it was ‘non-affirmative, inconclusive, unfit for children’ (White 1966 quoted in Sampson 1974: 98). Although its lack of closure certainly contributed to its notoriety, there has been speculation that Moore’s objections were primarily to do with the ‘monstrosity’ of Stuart’s birth. In his letters in 1945, White seemed to enjoy the consternation that his hero’s liminality caused, protesting at one point, ‘Nowhere in the book ... is Stuart described as a mouse,’ only to note a few lines later, ‘(I am wrong, Stuart is called a mouse on page 36 - I just found it. He should not have been)’ (Guth 1976: 270).

Interestingly, in the recent film version, the ambiguity of Stuart’s identity was clarified by making him the adopted son of the Littles. Despite this, there are reports on the film’s database that even this measure does not entirely reassure viewers, who still found his centrality in a human family disturbing. Stuart Little provides yet another example of the undecidability of talking-animal figures. As a potentially subversive, boundary-straddling figure, he unsettles categories. As such, he joins a long line of strange animal/human hybrids that inhabit the popular, but always somewhat uncanny, genre of the talking- animal story.



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Further reading

Adams, C. and Donovan, J. (1995) (eds) Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, London: Duke University Press.

Ritvo, H. (1985) ‘Learning from Animals: Natural History for Children in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, Children’s Literature 13: 72-93.

Tester, K. (1991) Animals and Society, London: Routledge.

Walsh, S. (2002) ‘Animal/Child: It’s the “Real” Thing’, in Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (ed.) Yearbook in English Studies ‘Children’s Literature’, 32: 151-62.