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On Talking Bunnies (and Common Core)

In child development circles, there has long been a school of thought that counsels against giving young children literature with talking bunnies. Or, stated more generally, against books with non-human characters that have been anthropomorphized. The idea is that kids should be grounded in reality, especially since young kids may find it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I myself don’t subscribe to this theory. My books for kids have the usual assortment of anthropomorphic animals, and I’ve also ascribed human characteristics and feelings to trucks (Big Truck and Little Truck) and punctuation marks (Greedy Apostrophe).

Why do I think talking bunny stories are good for kids? Because young children are egocentric. Not in the sense of being selfish. Rather, in the sense of actually thinking that the world revolves around them, that all others have the same point of view – and even the same experiences! – as they do. This is hard-wired, developmental, and there’s nothing you can do to convince a young child otherwise until they are ready to grow out of it.

I recall the day my preschool-aged son said to me, “Mom, remember the dream I had last night?” I tried to explain to him that he had had the dream, so I didn’t know what it was, but he couldn’t understand that. And the more I insisted that I didn’t know anything about his dream, that I didn’t have any access to his dream life, or, by extension, his thoughts, the more frustrated he became. What seemed to me to be a stubborn insistence on his part, a deliberate attempt not to even consider or take in what I was so carefully explaining to him, was really just developmental. His brain simply wasn’t ready, wasn’t old enough, to understand what I was saying. Finally, he trumped me by saying, “No! But you were in the dream. Remember?” At that point, I had to laugh. And the only way I eventually was able to wrest the details of the dream from him was by implying that I had forgotten. “Remind me what the dream was about,” I said. And he told me.

So why give kids books with talking trucks? To my mind, it’s a good idea precisely because kids think those trucks have the same feelings as they do. The characters can therefore help children express and access those feelings. Sometimes, it might even feel safer to them. A child who reads a book about a young truck whose dad has gone off to the repair shop might feel less anxiety than a child who reads about a dad who’s gone off to the hospital, or left because of divorce, or been deployed to war. Certainly there is a place for realistic books. But, for a very young child, situations that more directly reflect the child’s actual experience might feel too close. Books that have an element of fantasy in them can allow children to consider their feelings precisely because they are at a healthy remove. The human heart, like dreams, speaks in symbols, and that is the language it understands.

One thing to remember: fiction is different from non-fiction. It’s not reality. It’s fictionalized! And that’s the beauty part. Everyone understands on some level that fiction tells a tall tale, whether the fictionalized details are ones that could actually happen or not. The details represent reality, make art of it. And art can help us access those often thorny feelings that accompany the human experience.

When children are developmentally ready to move beyond their egocentric view of the world, they will find plenty of evidence to help them understand what is real and what is not. They will have an epiphany, or a series a small ones that add up to a bigger one. At the right moment, when a mom suggests to her young son that she did not have the dream he had, he will suddenly understand. “OMG!” he’ll think. “I get it! She’s not me!” But until he’s ready, he will doggedly think that she did have the dream, however much she tries to dissuade him. And that is a lovely time for children to read stories about animals who talk or a little truck who misses his dad just as they do. It fits snuggly with their worldview. And after the epiphany? When they’re in the know, it can still be fun. By then it can become ironic, like a teenager who carries a Pokemon lunchbox, harkening back to an earlier age. “I know this Pokemon lunchbox is too young for me. But now I’m carrying it in a cool, more informed way. (But really? I still love Pokemon.)”

In the end, fiction is fiction, and that’s the fun of it. It can go anywhere, do anything. As kids get older, they might enjoy a series about a boy wizard who attends a school where the curriculum is not Common Core, but magic spells. (Aha! This relates to Common Core? It all comes 'round!) And adult fiction readers might enjoy a story about a character who wakes up as a cockroach. Early picture books can pave the way for those later literary experiences. They say to children, “When you read fiction, it’s not exactly real, but in another way, it’s very real.” No matter how old we are, we tell ourselves stories to express and illuminate our experience. And that’s reality, the reality of fiction.

Picture books with anthropomorphic characters are a lovely introduction to the magic carpet ride that is literature. And that’s true whether young kids are ready to fully understand that yet or not. Read More