Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 12, 2008

Talking Animals

In my children’s lit class, we’ve been listening to lots of animals. E.B. White slowly leads us to this world though two chapters of Fern devotedly nursing a piglet. In Chapter 3, we smell and see the barn in vivid detail and feel ready to hear a pig, rat, geese, sheep and a spider talk together, with Fern sitting on a stool. Probably, though we’re never explicitly told, she, too, can understand. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we have maybe three pages of gray Kansas before, post-tornado, we meet animals and other beings who talk. Milne lets us into Winnie-the-Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood by having Christopher Robin drag Pooh – bumpety, bumpety, bump bump bump – down the stairs, and that small human boy is our ally. And most of my students loved stepping through the wardrobe and meeting fauns, talking beavers, and an awe-invoking lion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Then we read The Wind in the Willows. One student said she’d always loved the title and wanted to read the book – until she did. Most agreed they would never foist this on any child they loved. Toad, okay, was kind of charming, some thought, and at least he had adventures. But what was all that about spring cleaning and drinking tea and eating cakes and messing about on the river? And how could a toad ride a horse and what was he doing in a jail run by humans and why didn’t anyone notice it was a toad dressed up in a washerwoman’s dress? Grahame strained their suspension of disbelief, partly, many thought, by not giving us a specific portal there, but plunking us into the world of England’s forest and river animals. And once there overloading us with description.

Should animals talk in children’s literature? It depends on what they have to say. I wish I could remember who said this – and if anyone knows, will you tell me? Mostly we’re happy with the convention – the animal/children get to have fewer responsibilities and freedom, too – though sometimes we wonder if there should be more consequences. Gender and race sometimes don’t matter so much, for good and ill. Animals that talk can be fun and lead to who knows where: Dr. Doolite has its problems, but Jane Goodall claims that reading it as a child led to her ground-breaking work as a primatoligist. In White’s case, he used traits of the specific animals – studying academic texts on spiders, and mucking out his pig sties. Milne’s animals are more like the toys he apparently doted on, running into Harrads in London to buy yet another. In Grahame’s case, the animals do seem somewhat randomly chosen, and bump up against humans almost as randomly. For most of us, this didn’t work.



  1. I didn’t read Wind in the Willows until I was maybe in my thirties. Forties? And I’d seen a marvelous play based on the story before then. Also, we have two friends, who shall be nameless who, especially in their relationship. ARE Rat & Toad. It’s not my favorite story–the Toad scenes especially give me that I-Love-Lucy-Trouble’s-Coming-Churning-Stomach feeling–but it was a nice read.
    My son “got” it through a book-on-tape on a long, vacation drive, and he liked it that way, but hasn’t wanted to read it.
    What are are your students? I would LOVE to find a class like this one out here.

  2. Oh, and yes, I think animals should talk. Not always and not just for the heck of it, but where would we be without the ones you mention. And if we couldn’t hear what Smaug was saying in The Hobbit…

  3. It was funny, one of my students who I knew was a big Tolkien admirer complained most vehemently about these woodlands animals acting inapproriately.
    “But you have no problem with trolls or dragons,” I said.
    “Yeah, well, they ACT like trolls…” etc, on in their defense.

  4. I am glad to hear about someone who liked the book, even if it was a long drive! I actually did like it, but don’t think I’ll teach it again — there are simply others not on the list that the students will probably like more. I let them slice it off the Golden Age of Children’s Lit list.
    I was lucky to get this job in the English Dept at UMass. I’m an alum who’s returned to the area, and when the teacher who occaisonally taught the course retired, a former prof recommended me. Lots of colleges and universities offer these courses, but often they’re in education depts and geared more toward teaching. Nothing wrong with that, and I’ve got lots of future teachers in the class, but we do get to focus more on the books and tradition and less on pedagogy. Of course I am probably learning more than anybody else!

  5. Yes, I know, it’s silly, but that’s it. Your student got it. My son KNOWS that that’s part of a troll’s character, or a dragon, or whatever. On the flip side, he was never interested in reading Dick King-Smith. 🙂

  6. Yes, I know, it’s silly, but that’s it. Your student got it. My son KNOWS that that’s part of a troll’s character, or a dragon, or whatever. On the flip side, he was never interested in reading Dick King-Smith (who I do enjoy a lot!).

  7. I do think it depends on what the animals have to say and whether or not the author can convince me to step into his world 100%.
    That being said, I’m not usually into fantasy which is where a lot of this sort of thing happens.
    I’ve never read The Wind in the Willows and don’t feel especially compelled to try. Ack! But I am a huge fan of Charlotte and that silly old bear, Pooh.

  8. wind in the willows
    I loved toad and badger and rat and mole-y…I so wanted to live on the river with rat and see toad hall. and vacation on a gypsy wagon. There is also a wonderful series of videos in stop animation that bring them all to life. mmmm…what speaks to one…doesn’t speak to all….

  9. Re: wind in the willows
    Hey, Margaret, I was just going to ask if Dad read this to us? I do have a copy that looks quite well read, with some crayoning on the cover that I swear I did not do, though P says it looks suspiciously like my scribbling. No, no, must have been Ed. I can’t remember the reading though, but then what do I remember? I was more a fan of this now, anyway, than many of my students (there were a few fans), enjoying the affection between Ratty and Moley in particular, and I can take quite a bit of nature scenes.
    And I do think one student plans to get to Toad’s Wild Adventure on spring break.

  10. Thanks for writing! You might enjoy some of the quieter scenes of friendship, but if I had to choose between Wind, Charlotte, and Pooh I’m with you on the last two, which also show great friendships and nature.

  11. I was inspired to re-read “Wind in the Willows” again after reading this blog entry. The feeling I get from how the talking animals are used in this book is that it really reflects the origins of the book — that it was based on stories Grahame made up “on the fly” to amuse his young child… and as such, didn’t really require much in the way of logic or internal consistency.
    Regardless, Mr. Toad is still pretty cool.
    — PL

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