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10:43 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Great Ideas: Animals

Finally, folks, what you have all been asking for: The second in the long-awaited Great Ideas series: Animals.

The second of the Great Ideas is animals.

I am not sure why animals is a Great Idea. I wonder what Great Books include ideas about animals that led Mortimer Adler to put it on the list.

Not that I don’t love animals, mind you…and books about animals. When I was a child, I would have sworn that nothing in the universe was more important than animals. I am just surprised to find it here.

Nowadays, the shelves of the children’s and young adult sections of the book store are filled with books on vampires and magic schools. It was not like that when I was young. There were very few books about magic. Mainly, if you liked enchantment, you were limited to fairy tales and books of myth.

But there were many, many, many books on animals.

Every weekend from age 8 to 17, I volunteered at a local Nature Museum. It was not a formal arrangement. My parents would drop us off there and go jogging. One day, I approached the staff while they were building a display and offered to help. They gave me the task of sticking dried grass into corrugated cardboard, to form the effect of a grassy field.

I was hooked. I loved the people who worked there. I loved helping. I showed up and found tasks to do regularly for the next nine years, sweeping, cleaning, painting lines from Tolkien on the walls, helping carrying things during the nature programs the staff gave. You name it.

And, of course, learning about the animals, the stuffed ones, the live ones, the ones who lived win the wilderness. I went on bird walks. I followed deer prints. I showed up at night to look for owls. (My brother could do a really good impression of a 30 lb owl. We hid in a tree and tricked the Assistant Curator once.)

I loved animals. I lived animals. I breathed animals. I wanted to be an animal…or at least an animal trainer. Animal trainer or scientist was my goal in life right up to just before I left for college.

And, of course, I read about animals.

I read books about birds and books about horses. Books about cats and books about dogs. Books about flying squirrels. (Only time I ever saw one was right after that book.) Heartbreaking books about snow geese. If it has animals, I read it.

I read Misty of Chincoteague—which is why I love Chincoteague so much today. And King of the Wind—which is why I still love Arabian horses. I read the Big Red series by Jim Kjelgaard. You don’t see them nowadays, but there were a number of them and they were really popular. All about a young boy who trains an Irish Setter to compete in obedience trials.

I read a book about a boy who owned an owl, by Farley Mowat, I think…and his Never Cry Wolf—which, if you haven’t read it, is just hilarious. He was sent to discover if wolves were destroying the caribou population. The book chronicles his subsequent attempt to learn about wolves by living like them. 

I read book where animals talked like Water Ship Down, and books where they did not, like Where the Red Ferns Grow. (I consider that a dog book, though you could argue it’s about the boy. ;-)

Most important of all, however, I read a book about a fox where I wanted him to catch a rabbit. And then, the next week, I read a book about a rabbit, where I dearly did not want him to get caught by the fox who chased him.

That one experience taught me more than almost anything else in my childhood reading experience.

Even today, when I listen to Conservatives and Liberals argue, I am reminded of that…that it is possible to root for both sides, even when they are inimitable to each other, that being at odds does not make you evil, that every side has its own point of view.

Maybe Adler’s right. Maybe there are Great Ideas to be learned from animals.

So…what about writing about animals?

I love putting animals in stories. Ever since the email I wrote to John in the earliest days of writing about Miranda (and the earliest days of email) that read: Help, the cat took over the scene, I have been a fan of having animals in stories. They add dimension, show us another aspect of ourselves, and can be quite amusing.

I do have one rule about writing about animals though, a very simple one. Do not call the animal by its name repeatedly in the descriptions.

I have no idea why this rule is the case. I can only tell you that I have read quite a few books—mainly fantasy novels by women—where the animal is always referred to by its name, never as ‘the horse’ or ‘the cat’, and it never seems like an animal at all. It merely seems like another human character in a costume.

I tried to write an example, to show what I meant…and I couldn’t. I made it to animal like, even in my ‘don’t do it this way’ version. Sorry. The point is, if you write about animals, remember that it is an animal. Put in details that remind us of that animal. Even if it talks, let it talk like a member of that species would talk if they could, not like a human in animal-drag.

There are a million documentaries out there on nearly every animal known to the human imagination. (There are even documentaries on animals that don’t currently exist.) If you are writing about an animal you do not know much about, it is very easy to find out more.

That’s about it. Animals in a nutshell.

What are your favorite animal stories?

 
  




Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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From:princejvstin
Date:March 29th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
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Favorite animal stories.

Mmmm. Tough. Maybe Judith Tarr's novels, since she does such wonderful things with horses. Or Tad William's Tailchaser's Song novels. Or the Griffins (do they count?) in Erin Hoffman's Sword of Fire and Sea Or...
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
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Griffin's do count!

I had meantto talk about McCaffrey's dragons.
From:von546
Date:March 29th, 2012 04:27 pm (UTC)

Great Ideas: Animals

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Unicorns count as animals, right? Have you read Bruce Coville's Into the Land Of The Unicorns? ...von
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Great Ideas: Animals

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Unicorn's definitely count! (I know the series but haven't read it.)
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From:princesselwen
Date:March 29th, 2012 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Marguerite Henry was always a favorite of mine, and King of the Wind remains my favorite horse story to this day.
Wilson Rawls, author of Where the Red Fern Grows, did another book called Summer of the Monkeys, which is absolutely hilarious, though it still has some sad moments.
Jean Craighead George did some good animal stories too, the best of those being My Side of the Mountain.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:08 pm (UTC)
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I read everything Marguerite Henry had written when I was young. Recently, I learned she wrote one or two more I missed. I nearly mentioned My Side of the Mountain, too. John read that to the boys recently. Or Cricket in Time Square.

Never heard of the Monkey one!
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From:Janet Walden-West
Date:March 29th, 2012 05:02 pm (UTC)

Animal stories

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A big Yes! to all of the above, plus all Jean Slaughter Doty's horse and dog books, Lynn Hall's dog stories, Terhune's Lad; A Dog series, the James Street My Lady books featuring a lost Basenji, Bob, Son of Battle, even Kipling's two Jungle Books.
I have copies of them all, hoping at least one of my kids will be interested in a few years.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Animal stories

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I forgot about Jungle Book! Very good. (The others, too. ;-)
From:deiseach
Date:March 29th, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
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Favourite animal book? Does "The Wind in the Willows" count, since the creatures there are heavily anthropomorphized?

Other than that, I can't really say. As a child and young teenager, I read the "Silver Brumby" books by Elyne Mitchell, "Black Beauty", "Watership Down", and various others but though I enjoyed them, I can't say they were my favourites above all others.

If we're going to include fantasy animals, then the dragons in Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea" :-)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:10 pm (UTC)
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I think Wind in the Willows counts. And dragons. My brother and I loved the line about 'dragging their scaly bellies' that came out of LeGuin somewhere.
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From:headnoises
Date:March 29th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
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Hank the cowdog!

When I was finally allowed to check out books I wanted to read, I read every book the school library had.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:11 pm (UTC)
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Wow. That's even better than I did! Though I read a lot!
I should have listed Carbonel, too.
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From:wenchpower
Date:March 29th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
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I can't even count how many times I read Black Beauty when I was a little girl. As a teenager, I couldn't get enough of Tailchaser's Song. It's like Watership Down, but with cats and boatloads of Christian imagery. It's like Tad Williams went into my brain and extracted a bunch of things I like.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:12 pm (UTC)
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I never did read that one. I always thought I was going to, but somehow, I realize now, it hasn't happened yet.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:57 pm (UTC)
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OWLS IN THE FAMILY, is the Farley Mowat book you reference. About a Sasketchewan boy who catches and raises two owls. I found it very funny while growing up. I agree about animal stories being dropped out of young adult fiction. The aforementioned Mowat novel and a number of others I only knew of because my dad preserved most of the books he enjoyed when he was a boy.
Also less common, IME, is straight historical fiction. Alternate history, or especially alternate history with magic shows up a lot, but pure historical fiction in the model of G.A. Henty or Rosemary Sutcliff is a rarity.

Scholar-at-Arms
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 29th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
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That is a good point about historical fiction. I read a lot of that, too. I still remember very vividly the blood brother ceremony in a Sutcliff book I liked.
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From:marycatelli
Date:March 30th, 2012 12:53 am (UTC)
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I have a cousin who hates librarians. When he was young and innocent, he found Watership Down, which a librarian had figured for a children's book -- it has rabbits!

Yeah. 1984 with rabbits.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 30th, 2012 02:13 am (UTC)
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LOL I was pretty young when I read Watership Down...because of the rabbits. I did like it.

The kids I feel sorry for are the ones who brought home the Japanese porn that people used to stick in the kids section because it was animated.

I'm sorry for your cousin, though, because libarians are usually better informed than video store clerks.
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From:perpetual
Date:March 30th, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
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101 Dalmatians. Whalesong. The Redwall series.

(Came through johncwright's link. I love/d animal books. These were good thoughts, thanks.)
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 30th, 2012 12:12 pm (UTC)
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All good books! Thanks for dropping by!
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From:hannahsarah
Date:March 30th, 2012 05:04 am (UTC)
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My daughter will read ANYTHING with a horse in it. Thank G-d her library has a very full stock.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 30th, 2012 12:12 pm (UTC)
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I used to be exactly the same way!
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From:princesselwen
Date:March 30th, 2012 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Redwall books are just wonderful. I spent most of my childhood reading them.
And for a story that's fantasy but has realistic horses, I suggest the Damar books by Robin McKinley; The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. They have awesome horses.
Another really good horse story is The Black Stallion and sequels by Walter Farley. Very cool, and very exciting. He also did one about the racehorse Man 'o' War that was one of my favorites growing up.
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 30th, 2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
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In my original plan for this post, I was going to talk about The Black Stallion, and the volume in the Island Stallion series that had shapechanging aliens in it. I remember that my husband did not believe me when I said this. We were in a library. I went and found the volume and showed him.
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From:saintjoi
Date:March 30th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
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I was never a huge fan of animal books, but I did read some. I adored Marguerite Henry's books, and still dream of visiting Chincoteague. I loved the first few Black Stallion books, though lost interest about halfway through the series (though I could never forget the very bizarre final book, with the comet.) I dearly love the Redwall books, and cried at the end of Martin the Warrior. I tend to prefer human protagonists, because animal protagonists often feel too "precious." That's one reason I devoured Redwall: animals who could fight! Wonderful!
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From:arhyalon
Date:March 30th, 2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
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Chincoteague is worth it! Even more magical than one expects.
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From:bojojoti
Date:April 2nd, 2012 02:02 am (UTC)
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I loved horse and dog stories: The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, and any dog/wolf story by Jack London.

Here's a short story I love:
http://elearning.ccnu.edu.cn/ermsweb/libs/cwlib/%E5%A4%A7%E5%AD%A6%E8%8B%B1%E8%AF%AD1/UNIT5/c1add.htm
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From:arhyalon
Date:April 2nd, 2012 03:57 am (UTC)
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Oh! I had meant to talk about For the Love of A Man from Call of the Wild. Boo.

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From:princesselwen
Date:August 16th, 2012 10:09 pm (UTC)
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Also, right now I'm reading Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies. Its a fantasy story with a chosen one who is supposed to bring peace--only its about deer. Its really beautiful.

Besides that, there are the first nine Warriors books, by Erin Hunter. They're about cats that live in the wild, and they're a lot of fun. Skip the ones after Dawn, and especially the ones from The Sight onward, they're not nearly as good. But the first nine--Into the Wild, Fire and Ice, Forest of Secrets, Rising Storm, A Dangerous Path, The Darkest Hour, Midnight, Moonrise, and Dawn--are excellent. They follow the adventures of a young cat who escapes from his home to live in the wild and eventually becomes the leader of his clan, and later with a quest his daughter has to go on. They are quite violent, however.

Another good Walter Farley title is The Horse Tamer. Its about Henry Dailey's brother, Bill, who tamed wild horses.

And if you liked Redwall, I suggest The Mistmantle Chronicles, by M.I. MacAllister. (or McAllister, I can't quite remember how its spelled.) There are five books--Urchin of the Riding Stars, Urchin and the Heartstone, The Heir of Mistmantle, Urchin and the Raven War, and Urchin and the Rage Tide. They're a bit more mystical than Redwall, but still very good.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 16th, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
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Thanks!
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