To the Point - Wild at heart

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Children have a kinship with animal characters and can relate closely to their experiences, says author Peter Brown

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We are animals. As children, our animalistic sides are fairly obvious. The instincts and needs and wildness of children really aren't so different from those of young chimps or wolves. But as humans grow up, we slowly become more civilised, we face pressure to conform to society, and eventually most of us feel completely separate from the animal kingdom.

Despite this feeling of separation, part of our connection to animals remains. We hear an animal whine and we think it's sad. We see an animal raise the corners of its mouth and we think it's smiling. There's a word for our projection of human qualities on to animals: anthropomorphism. We anthropomorphise real animals as we interact with them, and we also anthropomorphise animal characters in our stories.

Animal characters seem especially appealing to children. I think the wildness that children still possess allows them to feel a special kinship with animal characters. Children look at animal characters and they see little creatures running around on two legs, wearing jackets, eating sandwiches, laughing with friends and running from scary things. Children look at animal characters and they see themselves.

TRANSFORMATIONS

As a child, my mother read Beatrix Potter tales to me, and I was mesmerised by what I saw. Sometimes Peter Rabbit acted like me, he walked on two legs, ate snacks and wore clothes. But as soon as Mr McGregor came running, Peter suddenly became a wild rabbit, leaving his jacket behind and using all four feet to flee for his life. I was captivated by this unpredictability, and I eagerly read on.

That's how, at a young age, I became completely fascinated with animal characters. I read countless children's books and discovered in them a whole spectrum of anthropomorphism. I read books like Curious George, where I saw a monkey who acted like a curious, but normal, monkey. I read books like The Berenstain Bears, where the characters were so human-like they almost seemed to be people wearing bear costumes. I wondered whether Frog and Toad ever felt the urge to eat flies, or if they were so human-like that they thought of flies as nothing more than a nuisance. And I joyfully took note of how The Fantastic Mr Fox could transform from a bipedal, eloquent wordsmith into a wild animal, sniffing and snarling and crawling around on all fours.

The Story of Babar by Jean De Brunhoff was a particularly interesting case. In it I saw a normal elephant named Babar, who was out in the wild. Everything seemed quite commonplace, until a hunter killed Babar's mother. The hunter then took Babar into the city where the elephant began walking on two legs and wearing clothes and acting like a human. Babar went through a huge transformation, but it all happened within a single turn of the page. To me, that has always been the most mysterious page turn in all of children's books. How exactly did Babar go from walking on four feet to walking on two? How did he go from being a normal 'naked' elephant, to one wearing a suit and spats?! I wished de Brunhoff had turned Babar's quick transformation into an entire story. Although, if he had, I may have never thought up my latest book ...

A FUN IDEA

Several years ago, I began imagining one of these typical animal characters - one that lived in a vaguely Victorian world, who wore proper clothes and walked on two feet and acted very much like a human. But I wanted this civilised animal to become curious about its own inner wildness. I wanted it to gradually act more and more like the animal it had always been. This seemed like a fun little idea, but the more I worked on the words and the pictures of this story, the more layers I found within it. Eventually, I realised I was making a story about more than just anthropomorphism, I was making a story about identity crises, self-expression and self-acceptance. I was making an animal story about very human experiences. That story is now called Mr Tiger Goes Wild, and I hope you like it.

Peter Brown is an author and illustrator of children's books. His award-winning titles include New York Times bestsellers The Curious Garden, Children Make Terrible Pets, and You Will Be My Friend!

Mr Tiger Goes Wild is published by MacMillan Children's Books, priced £11.99, and was reviewed in Nursery World on 21 October.

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