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.

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