Earlier this month, it was Dodie Smith’s one hundred and third birthday. This got me thinking about our canine friends, and why we love to read about them. It occurred to me that animal protagonists are so very important in children’s fiction.
Dodie Smith of course is the author of one of the most recognised and well-loved children’s books with animals as central characters; ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’. Pongo and Missus ‘own’ two humans in the classic dalmatian dog-robbery story. This brand of switch-up of authority in a narrative is fun for children, because they imagine themselves doing the same switcheroo with their own parents. Now you may be thinking that children and dogs are not the same thing at all (very true), but there is a significant similarity which connects young readers to animal characters. Both children and dogs seek safety and comfort from responsible figureheads, albeit in different ways. Both rely on adults (or owners in the case of the dog) to provide for them. Transforming this into children’s fiction serves to encourage respect for animals and the natural world around them.
On the topic of Dalmatians, this brings me to another (non-fictional) dog book. ‘Dogs and Puppies’ by Sarah Snashall - the perfect bite-sized fact book. Simple general knowledge is interesting for children because they can collect snippets of information to store and repeat to their friends – consolidating details in this way makes them feel worldly and grown-up. Universal facts like the world’s largest dog breed (the Great Dane) and discovering that Dalmatians were originally trained to protect stagecoaches from highwaymen, is exciting to a curious and developing little mind.
Far less often do animal narrators appear in adult fiction – we have reached a point where we don’t need animals as protagonists in the same way we did as children, rather, we need relatable humans with whom we can connect. However, occasionally we will stumble upon an example of an animal protagonist, and if we’re lucky, it still works as a narrative. 'The Art of Racing in the Rain' is just such an example, and one of our favourites in the Little English Bookworm team. It’s perfect for dog lovers - an exciting read, but also a real tear-jerker.
Diving back into younger fiction, let’s talk chapter books. Two really lovely young reader books are ‘Diva and Flea’ – an unlikely cat and dog friendship duo set in Paris, and the ‘Claude’ series – a little dog named Claude and his best friend ‘Sir Bobblysock’ having hilarious adventures in the city.
These really are perfect as early class texts, because they introduce young readers to the concept of chapter books. Once picture books become too easy for them, a book they can fit in their hands that still includes beautiful illustrations whilst simultaneously pushing them to read just that little bit further, is an absolute must for school-age children.
For those younger readers that haven’t quite reached the mark of reading on their own, this adorable new interactive book called 'The Dog Book' by Lorenzo Clerici is just charming. It gets your child involved as it asks you to name your dog, stroke him, call him, clean him and so on. When I read this with my three year-old daughter she was absolutely delighted – lots of laughing and requests for ‘again, again’. This is also a superb book for Montessori educated children.
Whether children are exploring animal facts - promoting positive relationships and strengthening their abilities of attachment and compassion - or uncovering a hidden moral between the pages of adventure, one thing is certain; from time to time, we need animals in our fiction. That element of tender care for other creatures is what grounds us and makes us human.