Librarian Fight Club – are human characters always better than animal characters?

Mainie age 6 is looking quizzically at a plastic toy figure - a white man with glasses. He reminds me a bit of a stereotype of a scout master, with cream shorts and a belt, a green polo shirt, one hand in his pocket and rather a smug expression on his face. He also has calipers on - he's from a set of "diverse" toys. Our text reads: human disabled characters vs animal disabled characters? #LibrarianFightClub #KidLitCripCrit @thecatchpoles

Librarian Fight Club – in defense of animal characters in children’s books… 

The idea children find it easier to empathise with human characters, so these are the books we should choose, is widespread amongst educators. And yes! I know it’s based on research, but other research draws different conclusions.

When we first posted our KidLitCripCrit list we got a DM (from a non-disabled person), explaining El Deafo might have a deaf author, but couldn’t be really good disability rep, because the characters are rabbits. 

Should we really prioritise books with no input from disabled people over own voices books just because of – in El Deafo at least – some rabbit ears? 

The worst disability representation we’ve come across doesn’t involve animals – it is in books by non-disabled authors with human child characters. And Cece Bell isn’t the only disabled author to choose animals. 

I don’t think this is a coincidence. 

If you’re a non-disabled author dipping your toe in disability rep, with all the charitable impulses in the world (and the confidence to think research unnecessary…) why wouldn’t you write disabled kids? And so they do. 

But for a disabled writer, living in a world full of discrimination, in which it’s made constantly clear you should have no expectation of privacy, it can feel very different. Pouring your reality out into a children’s book, in which the main character is essentially child-you, could be intrusive & uncomfortable. In order to get to the essential truth, you might need a distancing technique – bears, or rabbit ears. 

And do animal characters necessarily equal fantasy, and humans reality? Most fairytale characters are human – do kids empathise with Red Riding Hood more than Cece in El Deafo? Do they really see it as closer to reality? 

Kids like fantasy, they like animal characters. And that includes disabled kids, who deserve to be represented in these books too. 

Child characters are great. But can we not just look for good representation in good books, whether they’re about animals or skeletons or fairies?

Lucy and James Catchpole

PS our money’s on the mouse. Some of these disabled people toys are, well, a bit weird 😉

First posted on Instagram 5th December 2020

If you’d like to support what we do, we have affiliate links to Bookshop UK and Bookshop US – where you can buy most of the books on our KidLitCripCrit list. Some of which are about animals.

One comment

  1. It is an interesting topic – I chose to depict the characters in my book – Why Me, Mama? as all various woodland animals with differences. I didn’t think about if I, as disabled, was trying to distance or not. However, as all of the characters in my book are inspired by real children with disabilities (including my daughter) and their parents picked out their woodland animal – but there is the benefit of increased privacy.
    When I started to create my book – I was focused on disability representation in kidlit. However, a mama to Lorelai, represented as a hedgehog with a trach in my book brought up that she can go on Etsy and buy nursery prints of various animals but that none of them look like her baby – so my focus on representation expanded in a way that likely wouldn’t be as possible with human characters.
    A side note: Looking into book awards that focus on disability, I found it interesting that there are very few and one which would have been a good fit to apply to was the Dolly Grey Award: Books that are not eligible for the award include: Books that present the character with developmental disabilities as an inanimate object, animal, or other non-human.

    Katherine Lockwood


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