When I tackled the slush pile today, I found a talking animal novel manuscript. I know. I know. You're thinking yuk, a talking animal manuscript. And normally that's what I would think too -- even after acquiring, editing, and soon to be releasing the brilliant Kichi in Jungle Jeopardy, which is, yep, you guessed it, a talking animal story. So why do we tend to be predisposed to dislike animal stories?
(I'm talking about novel manuscripts here, not picture book. We tend to not like animal picture books because they tend to be bad, bad, bad writing-wise. They almost always involve the author's pet doing some incredibly cute thing that isn't actually enough material to make a good anecdote, let alone a good story. Animal picture books of a Beatrix Potter caliber are very, very difficult to write -- something new authors don't tend to grasp. And I can sympathize. I've been there too.)
But back to the animal story novels. Unlike the picture books, these tend to be written with attempts at plot and character development and the like. What I mean, is that they tend to be just as good or as bad as everything else in slush. So why do we (and I'm not using the royal we) still assume a talking animal manuscript is going to be the worst thing in the pile? There must be something about them that we instinctively know won't work for children.
There are lots of good animal stories out there -- Tale of Desperaux (Newberry Winner, though personally I don't know why. Because of Winn Dixie was better and less condescending towards the reader.), the whole Redwall series, and Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH(my all time favorite animal fantasy in the whole wide world -- I love you Kichi, but you're a second to Mrs. Frisby) are just a few. There are even good adult talking animal tales. Watership Down and Animal Farm are the two that immediately come to mind. What makes them so different from the animal stories that I tend to see in my slush pile? I pondered the question for an entire five second before the answer hit me harder than a new skier hits the ground. In the good children animal stories the main animal has the sensibilities of a child. In the good adult animal stories the main animal has the sensibilities of an adult. But, in the children animal stories that I tend to receive in my slush, the main animal has the sensibility of an adult. The author has assumed that because it is an animal story, it must be for a child, when often the author has written an adult story. The plot may be simple and moving; the character might be an animal that shows growth; the story may have a lesson or a moral, but that doth not a good children’s novel make. A good children’s novel has a main character that children can relate to, that thinks the same way they do. It does not have an adult character with adult problems. Children may read books like that (we read The Prisoner of Zenda in seventh grade), but they are reading adult books published for the adult market. Adults read children’s books; why should we be shocked if kids read adult books?
So where did that leave the animal story in my slush? Did it avoid this bear trap other animal story submissions have fallen into? No. Did I reject it? Not necessarily. I’m actually going to recommend it get a second read – just not by the other children’s editor. It was a beautifully crafted, well-written book. I actually read the whole thing. I’m going to hand it over to the adult editor with a recommendation that they consider it as a potential spiritual novel. It has that soothing, calming effect particular of that genre. I can’t say if they’ll accept it, but the book has moved on to the next rung in the acquiring ladder. We’ll just have to wait to see how far up it climbs.