By Sally Rippin

Why Animals Rule the Pages of Picture Books

Think about some of your favourite picture books from childhood. How many of them featured animals? Maisie the Mouse, Babar the Elephant, Curious George. These are all examples of animals who are essentially human: speaking, wearing clothes, going to work or school and living the way we do. There are also, of course, plenty of animal characters who remain true to their animal natures. The Hungry Caterpillar, Harry the Dirty Dog and Mog the Cat are stars of their own stories, but still created to elicit empathy from their young readers.

Animals are often used in picture books for their ‘cute factor’, but also because most children can relate to them very easily. Young children, like animals, particularly domesticated animals, are often unable to articulate their needs and are dependent on the care of a benevolent adult to survive. They rarely have a say in how things are done and usually carry the least amount of power in their world. Unsurprising, then, that some of the most influential and enduring picture books feature the child as ruler of their universe, empowered and in control, like the much-loved Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. But even in this story, Max only has no power over humans, only animals, as they are even lower in the hierarchy than he: his pet dog in the early scenes, the Wild Things later on. In the end, Max is still reliant on his mother for food, something she withholds from him early on as proof of her dominance over him.

During my three-month Wheeler Centre residency at the Melbourne Zoo, I had plenty of time to observe the way people related to animals. Some animals immediately invoked warm and protective feelings in observers of any age. These were usually the ‘cute’ animals. Meerkats were a hit, as were monkeys and koalas. The softer and furrier, the better. Animals with scales were often viewed with awe, as were large animals like lions and elephants. ‘Ugly’ animals like hyenas and warthogs were regarded with much less affection. The PR people behind animal protection campaigns are fully aware of this. It’s no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species logo features the adorable panda, not the more aesthetically-challenged naked mole rat.

But what if we further examine our own differing attitudes towards animals of various species? How much can we trace this back to the books we read as children or the cautionary fables recounted over hundreds of years? Why do we assume a fox is wily, but not a koala? Are sheep always innocent and lions always brave? Are hyenas really the bad guys? Or only if you’ve seen The Lion King? Try it now. Think of an animal, then attach a character trait to it. Chances are you’re not going to put ‘kind’ with ‘wolf’, or ‘clever’ with ‘chicken’. If a mother dingo kills a cute little furry baby marsupial to feed her young, does that make her cruel? Or kind? When we view animals in real life as well as stories, we find it almost impossible not to project cultural anthropomorphic stereotypes onto them, and no one is more aware of this than the picture book creator.

Recently, I began work on the illustrations for a picture book titled Big Sky Mind, a meditation guide for children, written by American author Whitney Stewart, with whom I collaborated on the book Becoming Buddha. Despite being a practicing Buddhist herself, Whitney was adamant she wanted the book to be non-denominational and the publisher was keen for it to reach as wide an age group as possible. I very quickly realised that this meant using children in our book would be problematic. I would be faced with making decisions about skin-colour, age and gender that would alienate a large group of potential readers, so using animals became the obvious solution.

However, in choosing which animals to feature, I had to consider the above-mentioned stereotypes. Pandas are too often used for anything considered mystical, or from ‘The Orient’, so I decided to avoid them, but I still liked the idea of something big and bumbling to create humour. I wanted an animal who would find it difficult to get into a meditation pose just because of the shape and size of its body, so decided on an elephant. As the text is mainly instructional, I then decided to give the elephant a friend to create a story dynamic. The two friends would have a falling out, giving our elephant the impetus to try meditation to calm his frustrated and angry mind. A skinny brown monkey felt like the perfect contrast to the big grey elephant and the first sketch I did was of the two of them meditating side by side.

Immediately I saw the relationship between my characters come alive. In the picture, the monkey looks slightly smug, as he is able to sit in a complicated meditation position quite easily, and the elephant, unable to cross his enormous legs, peeks anxiously at his friend. I also realised how perfectly the assumed character traits of these two creatures summed up my own mind whenever I attempted to meditate: clumsy, heavy, leaden as an elephant, or skittish, chattering and restless as a monkey.

I was very happy with this unexpected outcome, as I had secretly hoped this book would appeal not only to children but also to adults like me who have always found the prospect of meditation daunting. After all, I thought, feeling inspired by my own illustration – if an elephant can meditate, anyone can!

Portrait of Sally Rippin

Sally Rippin

She was born in Darwin, but grew up mainly in South-East Asia. As a young adult she spent three years in China studying traditional brush and ink painting in Shanghai and Hangzhou. Now Sally lives in Melbourne, where she writes and illustrates for children of all ages.

Further reading

· Sally Rippin interview with Books for Little Hands

· Interview with My Book Corner

· Sally Rippin’s blog and website