Have you noticed that picture books and books intended for two-three-year-olds present a child agency as talking animals? Talking animals are a great tool to explain the transition from a somewhat similar to animal existence to a talking little human.
Books intended for children from one to three years old usually have no human character. The animals take on the roles of humans and exercise human-like behaviour – they talk, make their meals and eat them at a table, go for walks, do chores, put on clothes, use the potty, etc. Children, in turn, associate themselves with animals and learn the ways of humans from the animal protagonists.
With time, however, a child’s mind begins to differentiate between humans and animals. The animals in children’s literature shift from being main characters to being supporting characters and eventually seize to talk. Statistics collected in 2021 by Neilsen Book Data, for instance, shows a great interest in animal stories in children from zero to four years old. The interest gradually fades out, and five to ten-year-old children assign animal stories the fourth place. Eleven to sixteen-year-olds are not interested in animal stories at all.
One Japanese popular fiction book titled Majo no takkyubin (Kiki’s delivery service) raises this issue by introducing a character called Jiji. He is a witch’s cat. A witch called Kiki could talk to him when she was young, but by the end of the book she found out she could not hear his words anymore. The witch grew older and the communication channel with her animal friend closed.
Another interesting observation is the coexistence of talking and non-talking animals in the same book. In a fantasy world, for example, there are talking animal characters and, yes, the food they eat. On one hand, eating a non-talking animal does not make one feel they did something bad. Children do not associate food with real-life animals until they reach a certain age. On the other hand, a talking animal is usually perceived as a character younger than the main character. Children usually like reading ahead of their age. Ten-year-olds read stories about twelve-year-old characters and so on. A talking animal in this context bridges the reader to their younger self. It becomes a tool for social and moral education.