Tips for Writing Children’s Books: Animals as Main Characters

I don’t think I’ve written anything about children’s books on this blog yet, and I’d like to. At the publishing company I used to work for, I was actually the leader of a children’s book editing team at one point. This topic will not apply to many of you, but then again who knows? You might just learn something!

One of the things I did was take my team to the bookstore to browse the children’s section. When making edits on a children’s book, it’s a good idea to be able to give the author an example of an actual children’s book that has been successful while utilizing the technique the author is attempting. Each month we focused on a different aspect of children’s books: animals as main characters, repetition, setting, theme, teaching, just to name a few.

Following are copies of notes I wrote based on one of our monthly bookstore outings where we looked at using animals as main characters. These are all books you can find at the bookstore or library that provide a great example of an author who successfully used animals as his or her main characters.

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Olivia by Ian Falconer

Olivia is an excellent example of a beloved children’s book that tells the story of a character who is an animal, not a human. There’s nothing in the text itself that says one way or the other, but the illustrations of a pig are so much more engaging to a young reader. This also shows why minimal narration is key. You don’t have to list everything a character is wearing, for example, because that can be shown in the illustrations. The text is understated—nothing literal. Also, nothing actually happens in this story that’s extremely out of the ordinary, but it’s still interesting. Why? Because it’s a pig. That’s why the use of an animal or unique human (ie. pirate, ninja, alien) is so important.

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Corduroy by Don Freeman

Corduroy is a beloved book about an animal, and yet there’s little in the text to suggest that Corduroy actually is an animal. The illustrations do this. Even though the book ends in a suburban home, the main plot’s setting is extremely fun and unique—a mall. Every child dreams about their stuffed animals coming alive in their room, but this setting makes the story stand out. The fact that this book has become a classic illustrates the fact that books featuring animals and set in out-of-the-ordinary locations last through the ages.

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Sea Monster’s First Day by Kate Messner

A sea monster is a unique animal that you can have some fun with illustrations and storyline. This book is another example (like Olivia) of why minimal narration is key. The story centers around a sea monster who is nervous about his first day of school but learns how much fun school is. This is something every child can relate to, but the fact that the main character is a sea monster rather than a child makes it more interesting to read about. Plus, the book is set in the ocean, so even though a classroom setting may be familiar, it’s under water, which is a fun place to read about.

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Can you think of any other children’s books that do a good job using an animal as the main character?
Do you think using a well-known book from the bookstore can be a good learning tool for writers?

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Children’s Books: Animals as Main Characters

  1. I don’t know about using a well known book as a learning tool. I am always afraid of being strongly influenced and copying some of the ideas. But maybe I should try your technique and see what happens. So far I am going around in circles though the rejection letter s are becoming longer and nicer.

    • I agree that it can be easy to become influenced by other books if that’s all you look at. There needs to be room for creativity on your own. But I often find that it’s good to see how others are doing it, especially a well-known book with proven success.

  2. My favorite ones to read Quinn are by Doreen Cronin, especially Giggle, Giggle, Quack. The farm animals are always doing things they shouldn’t be behind the farmer’s back.

  3. My sister and I were talking about Corduroy just a few days ago. 🙂

    Charlotte’s Web is a memorable book with animals as main characters.

    Do you think using a well-known book from the bookstore can be a good learning tool for writers?

    It depends. 🙂

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