March 22, 2011

Talk is "Cheep"!

I have a confession to make:
I have never been a fan of books with talking animals.

I don't mean animals that use onomatopoeia to communicate, I mean honest-to-goodness apparently-speaking-in-English animals. Lots of kids' books seem to have very gregarious four-legged creatures and I know children often love them, but I was not one of those children.

Small Review posted recently about some things that turn her off certain books, and one of them was talking animals. My comment turned into a little rant and so I thought I'd do a whole discussion post about it here. I'm trying to figure out why exactly I dislike some talking animal stories and not others (because there are exceptions, certainly), and I also wanted to get everyone else's opinions about it.

I think it boils down to a few key questions:

A) Who do these animals talk to?

Namely, is it:

1) Only to each other? For instance, in Watership Down, Redwall, Babe, The Cricket in Times Square, and Silverwing, the animals are the protagonists, and if humans are involved, they're not on speaking terms with them. For the most part I think I wasn't big on these books because I couldn't connect with the main characters, since they were all animals.

Plus Watership Down was just plain creepy.
2) To human characters as well? The Chronicles of Narnia, James and the Giant Peach, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Wizard of Oz, the Doctor Dolittle series and the Phantom Tollbooth are all examples of this. Generally I liked books in this category more, I think because there were human protagonists and I could relate to them better. I wasn't a big Narnia fan, though, and I really didn't like James and the Giant Peach (although I think that was more because I strongly dislike most insects).

The beavers from Narnia are multi-talented. Not only do they talk, they even cook dinner!

B) Is this story set...

1.) In the real world? For example, Charlotte's Web is set on an ordinary farm, The Wind in the Willows near a river in the British countryside, James and the Giant Peach starts out at a cottage in England by the sea, and Doctor Dolittle travels all over the world. Somehow it always seemed to me very contradictory to have all the limitations of our actual world cast aside when it came to animals' linguistic abilities.
Wilbur: "I can talk! I can actually, factually, talk!" Me: Please don't.

2.) In a fantasy world? The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Perloo the Bold, Redwall, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland all fit here.

Even the White Witch doesn't approve of talking animals. Especially not talking lions.

C) Is the animal-talking due to magic of some kind?

In The Goose Girl the main character Isi is able to mind-speak with her horse. And Tamora Pierce's heroine Daine, from the Immortals series, also has an ability to mentally communicate with animals. I find the whole thing much easier to swallow if it is presented this way, probably because I'm not trying to picture animals moving their jaws and physically producing the English language.

D) Are these animals really humans who just shapeshift?

Because if they're werewolves or were-tigers or were-elephants or whatever, then for the most part I think of them as human. And it seems the general rule for writing shapeshifters is to have them communicate mentally anyway.

Yep, Jacob Black looks human enough to me... :D
End result: if there is *nothing* fantastical about the story apart from the talking animals, and it's set in the real world...chances are I'm not going to go for it. If it's set in another world or there's magic aplenty going on, well, I've already suspended my disbelief somewhat, so I can afford to suspend it a little more. Let's face it, if there are dragons or animated playing cards in that world, then talking animals are the least of your problems.
Don't worry about talking animals...worry about talking DRAGONS.
Oddly enough, my aversion to books with talking animals does not carry over to movies. I loved the Charlotte's Web movie when I was younger, and many Disney movies with their infamous animal sidekicks. I think this might be because the movies actually visualize it for me, so I kind of *have* to believe the animals are talking when I see them doing so on screen.

So, what about you guys? Love talking animals in books? Hate them? Like them only when they talk to each other? Tolerate them, but barely? Let me know!


  1. Awesome post! Although there are sometimes when I'm okay with it, as a general rule, I do not like my animals to talk. If an animal has to be speaking, I definitely prefer it to be in a fantasy, or telepathically.

    Although, I did like Charlotte's Web as a kid!

  2. I feel that I can't stand talking animals in books, but once I really start thinking about it, I can come up with lots of exceptions.

  3. Lovely post and very informative too! If talking animals have something interesting to say I don't mind them. It's even better when they have a sense of humour. Of course I don't treat them as animals then as they are clearly becoming a human being's metaphor. Otherwise I am not fond of them.

  4. I was just going to ask you about how you felt about "Charlotte's Web"! To be honest, it doesn't really bother me. It's probably because I don't treat them as any different than human characters.

  5. LOL, Watership Down IS creepy! The movie is even weirder. Your caption under Wilbur is hilarious.

    You really hit the nail on the head for me too. I have a difficult time connecting with the characters when they're all animals, but a human protagonist thrown into the mix helps me relate better. I'm with you on also preferring it to be in a fantasy setting of some sort. I can more easily accept that.

    Good point about shapeshifters too. I can get on board with that because they're really human.

  6. How did you feel about "The Rats of NIMH?" It's set in our world and all the animals (not only the superintelligent rats but also the mouse, owl, etc) talk to one another. The rats, being superintelligent, can understand and even read human language but they don't actually speak it - at least not in the original. (There are a couple of sequels done by other authors in which they do...) Anyway, it doesn't seem to fall into any of your categories so I thought I'd ask! :)

  7. I agree with you! I find it much easier to connect when the animals talking are in a fantasy book like Narnia. Although, it does translate to screen much better. Shapeshifters in paranormal books never really bother me that much because I also think of them as human and I don't even think about the fact that they're 'animals' too.

  8. It depends on the book and characters for me. I love Aslan and I love Reepicheep, but I could care less about every other talking animal in Narnia. I love Pantalaimon and all the other daemons in His Dark Materials. In fact, I'd love a daemon of my very own. :) Other than that, I can't really think of any other talking animals I love. But, I also can't think of any I hate either.

    Talking animals aren't a turn off for me. They usually endear themselves to me or don't. But, just because they're an animal, I care about them and don't want them to be hurt in any way.

  9. @Ashley: Yay, I'm not the only one!

    @Madigan: Yeah, I came up with several exceptions as I wrote this post :D

    @anachronist: Thanks! True, if the dialogue is humorous and gives the animal lots of personality then they do become more human-esque - I think that helps me to forget that they're animals at all :)

    @Rummanah: Yeah, wasn't such a big fan of Charlotte's Web! I did quite enjoy the movie though - Templeton the rat was such a deviously fun character. And I think I liked all the catchy songs too :D

    @Small Review: LOL, thanks! Definitely, that was what I was getting at - it's just easier to accept for me if there are fantastical aspects apart from just the talking animal thing.

    @contrapuntalplatypus: I haven't read the Rats of NIMH for many, many years, so I don't remember it all that well. I think I enjoyed them well enough but they weren't favourites of mine. Actually, I think I liked the sequel featuring a brother and sister who discover the rats, more than the original (or maybe it's just because I've read it more times so I remember it a little better!)

    @Stephanie: Good to know it's not just me! :)

    @Jenni Elyse: Interesting! Sounds like it really matters which specific animal character it is for you. I agree, a daemon of your own would be pretty amazing. And I'm also with you that some animal protagonists are more endearing than others.

  10. I'm not much of an animal book fan, whether they speak human or not. But if the animals are going to get into the action, I'd rather it be fantasy adventure than just a cute pet story. However, Watership Down is one of my favorite books. It's much more than just a book about rabbits.

  11. Talking animal books are kind of hit and miss with me. I liked Animal Farm and James and the Giant Peach, but not much else that I've read Watership Down and Charlotte's Web. I'm kind of hesitant to read much in the way of talking animal books.


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