Emily Gravett on how animal characters can help children build empathy
Emily Gravett’s books are full of loveable animal characters which children adore. Here, Emily tells us how animal characters can help little readers build empathy and explore difficult subjects.
Many of our most loved children’s books feature animal characters, from classics like Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood to Emily Gravett’s beautifully illustrated picture books, including the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal-winning Wolves and Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears. Here, Emily tells us why she is so drawn to using animal characters in her stories, and we share a selection of Emily Gravett’s books featuring our furry, feathered and scaly friends.
I draw a lot of animals, birds, bugs and non-humans in my books, and I’m often asked why. It’s a good question, and I often struggle to answer clearly because it is a complex subject, and there isn’t just one reason. Sometimes, if I’m trying to keep my answer short, I’ll just say ‘because I like to draw animals,’ and although there is some truth in this (I do love a bunny), it’s not the real reason I often pick animals over humans.
One of my aims when I am making a picture book is to appeal to the reader. The reader being both the child and the adult who is invariably sharing the book with the child. I want the reader to engage. I want them to feel emotion, to be able to empathise with the character in the book, or to begin to understand that not everyone feels the same way as them.
So, when I use an animal to represent a character in my book instead of a human, I am able to transcend a whole lot of problems which may narrow the appeal to the reader. I want my book to be looked at by the widest audience, right from when the adult in the shop or library first picks it up. We humans constantly make snap judgements, however much we try to resist. I’m sure many of us have curated our children’s lives – carefully avoiding gender stereotyping – only to find outside influences creep in. I avoided buying gendered clothing when my daughter was little only for her to fish out the flounciest dress from a friend’s hand-me-downs and wear it constantly because unlike her dungarees which made her feel ‘playful’ the dress made her feel ‘pretty,’ and somehow she’d got the impression that this was favourable. Using animals instead of people helps me to cut down many of our ingrained and even our subconscious prejudices. To see past surfaces and get straight down into personality and emotion.
For example; let’s imagine a story about a little girl who is afraid of life. She’s afraid of bugs and loud noises, of being alone. All sorts of things. Have you formed a picture of her in your head? Does that picture change if she’s a toddler? How about if she’s older? What about if it’s a boy not a girl? Do you identify with them, or are you (go on admit it) judging them based on their gender, age, or even their colour?
Back to our book: How about we change our little boy/girl into a mouse? Suddenly her fears are easier to empathise with, aren’t they? The mouse’s age, gender or colour feel less relevant because magically when we anthropomorphise a mouse, the complexity is stripped away and all we see is someone small (like us), someone vulnerable (like us) who (like us) is often scared.
Animals are ‘like us’, but they are not ‘us’, which allows just enough emotional distance from which to explore subjects that would be too raw, frightening or too ‘real’ if we used humans. Topics like loneliness, fear, or environmental disaster.
There is also a sort of shorthand around animals that allows us to set up part of a story just by using a particular species. As in my earlier example – even a small child knows that mice are nervous, or that owls are wise. This kind of knowledge can be harnessed and turned on its head to challenge and play with the child’s perceptions. The removal of humans from a story can allow our small animals to live independently of parents, go on adventures, and put themselves in danger in a way that no human child can.
But finally, and arguably just as important – who doesn’t LOVE a bunny?