All Stories is an initiative that offers free opportunities for underrepresented children's book writers to develop their work. The second programme began in October last year and will end in June '23. Every fortnight, a new mentee introduces themselves and tells us about their experience so far. Please welcome Scar Ward.


Animals have always been a staple of children’s books. Sometimes the kids are rescuing animals, sometimes they’re riding them in sports or flying them in fantasy wars, sometimes all the characters are animals. A boy and his dog/horse/duck-billed platypus is a classic, evergreen trope for a reason.


One of my earliest memories as a reader is my mum reading Sheltie the Shetland Pony to me at bedtime. From there I developed an insatiable appetite for chapter book series like Animal Ark, Puppy Patrol and Magic Kitten; they were cosily formulaic and fun to collect. I soon progressed to series like Animorphs and Warrior Cats, more morally complicated books where the viewpoint lets you inhabit the animals and imagine a world with wholly different senses; an entirely different perspective of the world.


Part of the appeal is obvious – lots of kids like animals, or at least one kind of animal. What’s your favourite animal? is even one of those go-to conversational prompts adults trot out when How’s school? fails. Plus rescuing animals is both a heroic fantasy and realistic for child characters to accomplish in a contemporary setting.


There can also be an educational element; I learnt many facts about animal biology and behaviour through fiction, though this does put the onus on the author to be sure they aren't perpetuating myths, especially with species that have been subject to widespread misinformation like wolves. Even with domestic animals, authors sometimes make mistakes, for example, most breeds of hamster can’t be housed together whereas rats need companions and it’s unethical to have just one (I judged characters with a single rat as a pet more harshly than I expect the author intended).


But what I wonder about is the psychological element. Throughout ages 8–12, a friend and I participated in different online subcultures where kids our age played out fantasies of being animals through video games like Wolfquest, a game made by Yellowstone National Park as educational outreach, and through written roleplaying and writing and digital art. There was more of a darkness to the collective fantasy here; kids generally didn’t want to play themselves as house pets, but wanted to be wild animals, wanted bloody fights to the death and high drama and struggles for survival in the wilderness.


I’ve observed the current iterations of these subcultures from afar and they’re much the same – different platforms, but the heart of the subculture is unchanged. I wonder if our generations were and are more aware of our vulnerabilities. The freedom and nonchalance of the children in Blyton books were as fantastical to me as talking cats; the Overton window of what’s safe for children has shifted drastically since then, plus burgeoning technologies have narrowed physical freedom even further.


Through the news, TV, and parental anxiety, I was very aware of the dangers of misadventure that could happen outside adult supervision. I think this was part of the appeal – wild animals have a freedom and independence kids don't have and they also have innate weapons and defences. They usually have claws and teeth, able to fight and defend themselves – animals as protagonists can be as much a power fantasy as protagonists with magical powers. In the worlds of these books and the worlds we created, the wild is dangerous, the wind has teeth and the winter is harsh, but it can be survived.


However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the shortcomings of these subgenres. A 2020 CPLE study found that children’s books were eight times as likely to feature animal main characters compared to BAME main characters. The child characters of the chapter books I grew up on were designed to be generic characters the reader could project on, but the concept of a blank-slate protagonist makes big assumptions on what is average and who the assumed reader is.


You’re never going to be able to cover all bases in a couple of characters but when across many different series the protagonists are all white, able, neurotypical, middle-class characters with nuclear families, then readers who aren’t those things never get to have that reading experience where the main characters are kids that could so easily be them.


While the animal subgenres do have some way to go in modernising, I believe they can still be hugely relevant to current and future generations. Recent successes like The Last Bear and Leila and the Blue Fox have issues of ecology and extinction at their heart; climate change is an existential fear most relevant to the youngest among us and to those yet to come. Learning in primary school geography that polar bears could be extinct in your lifetime can easily be the first time you start caring and worrying about global issues, the first glimpse of a problem that adults aren’t sure to solve.


Similarly, Pax has in one sense a very classical Boy and His Fox narrative, but explores themes of war and human destruction. It alternates between the boy and the fox’s perspective, creating equality in the narrative rather than the animal being a prop in the child’s story.


Animals in kidlit might be old hat by now but books with fresh takes on classic tropes or that foster a sense of wonder for the wild, a sense of empathy and connection with endangered wildlife are surely here to stay.

 *Header: Tita Berredo 




Scar Ward is an autistic queer writer based in Glasgow. Outside of revising an MG novel as an All Stories mentee, they're a playwright and a writer-director, with a Masters in Writing for TV and a BAFTA scholar. Their debut short film Dead Susan played at BAFTA qualifying festivals and their first play is in development with Birds of Paradise theatre company.


Twitter: @scar_ward

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