- Cat-Quest:A Symbolic Animal in Margaret Wise Brown
For the 1986 annual conference of the Children's Literature Association, Trina Schart Hyman planned "a vicious diatribe," subtitled "How to Survive Twenty-Five Years of Illustrating Children's Books Without Putting Clothes on Animals" (Hyman 5). Although the lecture she delivered was on another subject altogether, the question session afterward gave her the opportunity to explain why anthropomorphic animals were her "pet peeve." "Every other picture book for small children," she complained,
doesn't even mention that these characters are animals. It says, Henrietta's First Trip to the Dentist. Well, Henrietta's a raccoon, you know, with Nikes and a little pink dress on. And the dentist is a rhinoceros. . . . Why couldn't Henrietta be a kid and why couldn't the dentist be a real dentist? Is that because we're taking the easy way out and we're afraid to show real people in questionable situations? Not only that, don't you think that this is giving kids the idea that animals are supposed to behave and think and have the same values as us? And that's really wrong.
For the lay public, "children's literature" is indeed all but synonymous with cute talking animals. Would-be writers for children have driven some editors to the point of advertising in Writer's Market that "no talking animal stories will be accepted." Even in highly regarded picture books, species are assigned to characters with little or no concern for the nature of the animal. A child will learn nothing about badgers from Russell Hoban's Frances books, or about grizzlies from Else Minarik's Little Bear. Such animal characters are not really animals but, as Margaret Blount calls them, "Ourselves in Fur."
We could trace the clothed animal syndrome back to the turn of the century and Beatrix Potter, yet her characters are still in a sense [End Page 149] true animals, their small lives dominated by the need to find food and shelter, raise families, and survive the lethal attacks of predators. A stronger case could be made against Margaret Wise Brown. The popularity of her books for small children, steadily growing since the 1940s, may well have influenced the picture-book makers of today. And many of her numerous animal protagonists seem only nominally animal. The Runaway Bunny, though sharing Peter Rabbit's impulse to leave home, has neither an overpowering desire to gorge himself on vegetables nor a Mr. McGregor to watch out for. In Goodnight Moon, the animal-human question was not decided until the final editorial meetings; a little boy might be sleeping in the "great green room" today had Clement Hurd not been better at drawing rabbits than children (Marcus 197). For other books, the animal species seems to have been chosen almost at random. The animal family in Wait till the Moon Is Full consisted originally of rabbits, but were changed to raccoons (Marcus 229). The animals in Little Fur Family and Three Little Animals do not even possess a species—only a generic furriness.
Yet it does seem to matter, at some level, whether these characters are animals or not. We feel instinctively that to replace the rabbit with a little boy would change the great green room. To me, the animality of her animals is essential in Margaret Wise Brown, if not to her imitators. I will even argue that she chose which species of animal to use in a given context—not scientifically, nor always consistently, but in harmony with a poetic logic of her own.
Leonard Marcus's sensitive portrait of Brown in Awakened by the Moon suggests that the boundaries between children, animals, and self were more fluid for her than for most adults. At the Bank Street School, for example, "Brownie" amazed her peers by her ability to achieve "as if by second nature" the "unselfconscious identification with the young child's experience" for which the other students strained and strove (Marcus 61). In later years, Brown's periodic vacations alone on her Maine island seem to have kept her in touch with her animal self as well. "Everything is...