A Dark Horse

On this day in 1878, novelist Anna Sewell died.
She lived long enough to see the initial success of her only published work - but what a story it was.
Never intended to be solely for children, over 50 million copies have been sold world-wide.
No less than nine film or TV adaptations, a stage play and ten sequels involving related horses have been created.
Not bad for a disabled woman who had suffered from ill-health since she was 14.

It seems ankles are a liability for children's writers - see last month's piece on Astrid Lindgren. In Anna Sewell's case, she injured both legs in a fall. Her consequent  use of carriages led to her concern for the plight of horses.

As a Quaker - or member of the Society of Friends - she had been brought up to empathise with others. Her mother was also a children's writer, and whilst travelling to find a cure for her illnesses, Anna met many authors and artists.

Writing from the point of view of a horse, as if in his own words, she spurred on the creation of animal-centred stories. People love them - as they have since the days of Aesop.

From Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, which led to the Disney film; via Watership Down by Richard Adams; The Deptford Mice and other series by Robin Jarvis; Varjak Paw by S.F Said and The Rising by Tom Moorhouse we can visit entire communities of creatures. These tales speak up for nature, for whole ecologies.

Artwork by David Kean
Some feature animal characters who are more like us: the Large Family books by Jill Murphy, or the Mrs Pig books by Mary Rayner. The contrast is ripe for humour (check out The Dark Avenger by Trevor Millum - a two voice poem with dog and boy). Anthropomorphism might be frowned on in more scientific circles but it is very popular. How many picture books rely on the appeal of human-like bears, ducks or tigers?

Taking the human aspect still further, we have the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy who take on the form of birds and beasts, or wild cat Gryff in Abi Elphinstone's Moll series - a spirit animal if ever there was one.

In all these delightful examples, and thousands more like Babe the Sheep-Pig, Charlotte and her Web, and Fantastic Mr Fox - treatment and behaviour towards animals tell us a great deal about humanity. How might you use that in your work?

Some ideas to try

  • A new slant. The use of animals gives lots of scope for a different perspective. We all say a bird's eye view - but what about an ant's? Or the proverbial fly-on-the-wall?
  • Characteristics. Which creatures do people in your 'cast' resemble? What would their spirit animals be? You mighty find some metaphors or visual clues - for example: do they slink, scuttle or prowl? Gobble or hiss? This is one way of creating handy 'tags' for minor characters - e.g. a walrus moustache or fox-coloured hair.
  • Empathy. How do the people in your story treat pets or wild creatures? What is their reaction when encountering 'creepy-crawlies'? Sketch such a scene from the animal's point-of view: it might well not go in the finished work, but you will learn a lot about your protagonist - or antagonist.


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