Animals in Middle Grade
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Sue Stanley: Welcome you are listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team and I’m very excited to speak today with author Jodi Kendall. Welcome Jodi thank you for being here.
Jodi Kendall: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Sue: For those of you who may not know, JodI is the author of The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City and Dog Days in the City, published by Harper Collins Children’s Books and she is here with us today to talk about animals in middle grades, or in middle grade books. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, JodI?
Jodi: Sure. So I was a freelance journalist for many years primarily working in the wildlife space and with animals in captivity. So for the National Geographic Channel in NatGeo Wild. So I had some of the great opportunities of visiting zoos, aquariums, wildlife sanctuaries around the world and doing lots of different wildlife expeditions in most namely, in Mexico and Malaysia. And those were really great experiences which all fed into my book writing. Which I, my debut book came out in 2017 and my second book came out last year and those both have animals as primary characters.
Sue: It seems like you’ve written about nearly every animal Under the Sun from sharks to elephants to birds. What’s your position on research? Do you think that research is important when writing animal characters or are there scenes, instances where it’s okay to mostly wing it?
Jodi: I always think that research from experience and reading and interviewing experts is an important process is to research. Being Highly aware, intentional and mindful about ascribing human attributes to the animal kingdom. That could be more prevalent in talking animal stories, but there’s a few different categories here. So, you can have animal characters that you dress up in human clothing like in The Wind in the Willows. Or you can have animals that act natural to their species, but they talk to one another like in Charlotte’s Web.
And then there’s those characters that fall somewhere in the middle, like The Pigeon picture-books. Pigeon doesn’t wear human clothes but he does talk with other animals like the duckling and he’s got strong opinions and a really fun entertaining personality and that feeds into his character. So research can really help a writer figure out where their creative choice is going to go as their, that narrative is evolving.
And if you do a fantastical narrative that shows animal behaving out of species normality, you can do so with purpose. Once you put in that research. So for example, and how rabbits experience the world. How a rabbit might show affection and fear towards a human. And how a wild rabbit’s behavior and lifestyle would differ from one raised in-home as a pet for example. Versus one you know, that was from the wild. And if you’re writing a non-fiction picture book about lions you have a responsibility to portray that animal accurately and with a bibliography to boot. So you need to put in that research. Reading a lot of animal books of all genres and age groups really does help hone the skill and that’s something that I continue to work on. And still a part of the research process.
Sue: You mentioned age groups which i think is really important for animal stories and right now, animals and actually historically, animals have been very popular with middle grade readers specifically. Why do you think that’s true?
Jodi: I just think that children have such a beautiful, natural curiosity about the natural world. And that extends to space and experience with, on this planet. and personally, even ever since I was a kid I’ve always gravitated to stories with animals.
Sue: I think a lot of kids do. Some animal stories that historically and probably today as well can be quite violent. Are there wilder stories still appealing to young readers or is it better to keep things tame?
Jodi: Yeah, you know, I’m sure there’s a wide range of opinion on this and it depends on the age group that you’re writing for and what genre. So violence does exist in our world and in the natural world of animals. So in fantasy animal novels for example, there might be violence because of wars between groups. Or nonfiction stories, you have an obligation to talk about predator versus prey if that’s falling into you know, that particular species.
So for an example, sharks are the apex predators of the sea. They’re powerful. Well having seen might be a little more [graphic for a] mddle grade novel than perhaps in a picture book. You might just see an illustration of a shark chasing a penguin but there’s no blood or open flesh wounds. It’s just that sub context of a hunt happening on the page. and art directors you know, editors help you through that process. But for example, for an older age group so for middle grade or getting into young adult. You have, the boundary can be a little bit trickier to navigate. So for example, White Fang starts off with wolves hunting dogs. But you’re getting information from the human’s point of view so there’s tension on the page.
The mystery of what’s taking the dogs. And the fear rising when you hear the wolves howling and you realize that the wolves are closing in. That creates really high stakes and high tension on the page and it’s not exactly violent right directly. So as the initial hunt evolves, the reader is transported to the she wolf’s den and they understand what she’s feeling and then a reader can empathize. [She’s trying to feed her] pups. So when the wolf goes to hunt the rabbits and porcupines, there’s not just needless gore. It’s actually really intentional. And the hunt and the and the kill is to feed herself and her family to save them from starvation. So there’s a reason behind the action. Having a better understanding of your target age and for readership and animals you’re writing about will help determine where that boundary lies.
Sue: That makes sense. Do you have any advice for writing popular animals such as dogs and cats or is it different than it is for writing wild animals?
Jodi: Yeah this will come into play in both fiction and nonfiction but there are many stereotypes. For example, what I experienced as a writer is that there’s the whole cliche that pigs are dirty animals and they’re actually very clean animals. They don’t have sweat glands, so that’s why you might see a pig rolling around in the mud. It’s to cool off. So you need to do your animal research so you know that stuff when you sit down to write that book. In The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City she actually says them out loud in a family discussion and his daughter calls them out on it. And she kind of provides that voice of reason. In fact, when her dad says these incorrect clichés. So you can work them into your book that way.
But if you want to you know, you want to be aware of them to help you know avoid some groans from the reader later on. And kind of playing into, I wanted to tie this back to the shark example previously. Here’s an example have research, violence, and stereotypes might come into play during the creative process. So sharks are incredible hunters. But they’re also, these, are these like these, scary human hunting creatures that the media can sensationalize them to be. They’re not. Humans are actually the greatest threat to sharks. So a writer has a responsibility to tell the truth and understand a species and also in context. If that makes sense. So if you’re writing and under the sea fantasy and the Sharks are at the top of the food chain, it would be regurgitating an unwise cliche in my opinion to have these fictional sharks hunting down humans. That feeds into a dangerous stereotype that’s untrue and it can be harmful because sharks are actually incredibly important to our oceans and they need global protection.
So by understanding these challenges, you can ask yourself when you’re writing this story, what would be more interesting and creative and fresh? What if the sharks were hunting something else. Maybe even something mythical. And if there’s humans in the story, what if the sharks and humans are allies instead of operating as opponents? What if the species was half human half shark? So you can ask yourself what would make that animal fantasy novel more original? And what hasn’t been done before. By brainstorming. Reading lots of books playing around with point of view. like to elaborate a little bit on stereotypes.
There’s also other kinds of stereotypes that could come into play in the creative process from cultural racial and gender. And one thing that someone could do as homework, is check out Ferdinand the movie. And there’s this character of these trio of horses and you’ll see what I mean with some cultural stereotypes. But Shannon Hale, if you follow her on Twitter, she does a great round up every year because they burning the top US grossing animated movies and she counts the male to female character ratio. And she takes a look at the character with a name. Whoever, like if a character has a name and has at least one line of dialogue, it counts towards this equation. So in her round up for last year there was 152 male characters and 99 female characters. Which she states are much better than past years. But in the human and animal kingdom at least 50 percent are female. Thankful to also have a female or non-binary character. And definitely check out Shannon Hale on Twitter because she’s got a lot more interesting thoughts on gender and stereotypes in animal stories. That’s great, thank you for that resource. What are the major challenges or differences between writing from an animal’s point of view versus an animal with a speaking role?
Jodi: Well, if you’re writing with the animal talking, you absolutely need to understand through and through how the animal experiences the world because that will influence how you write. Animals might have the same senses as humans but generally they’ll favor one or two. So for example, dogs. Dogs experience the world first through their strong powerful sense of smell. So if you’re writing from a dog’s point of view and the book starts with this dog in the backyard it should be carefully crafted to have the dog recognizing the different aromas. Perhaps smells a flower, something that’s not familiar. Will notice those smells before noticing how something looks in the backyard. So the dogs not going to probably start commenting about how the patio chair has fallen over or at least at first. It would probably identify with its world by those aromas. So as a writer, knowledge of how the dogs are operating as these scent machines informs your story.
So if we stuck with this example, what if your dog in the backyard suddenly catches an unusual aroma. Something that she’s never smelled before. What if the dog tries to warn her human that there is danger around the bend. The dog might start acting strangely then to get her human’s attention, right? She knows this key information from her you know what she’s picked up in her scent and her protective instinct kicks in. So if you’re writing from the dog’s point of view she might, the dog might start barking. It might start grabbing her owner’s shirt or trying to pull her indoors to safety. And then you can also play but if this particularly or the fact that she’s barking in general is just really out of character for her. That will play into your story. Now if you wrote that same scene written from a human’s point of view, or you know just third person. That human character could interpret this as the dog having lost its mind. That it’s suddenly violent. They might wonder if the dog has rabies. Or maybe they would just be so obviously excited that the dog has started barking. That it’s found its voice.
So they might not be interpreting the same scene that same information and that would create a very different interpretation for the same backyard story. So research definitely informs the writing in more ways than sensory details and experiences. When sensing, so you really need to know how your animal operates in the world. So if you’re writing from a horse’s point of view, when a horse senses danger, it would normally, it’s instinct would cause it to flee right away. It’s a little bit more very – you might action and interpretation of the same action. But if you’re writing from the horse’s brain you know the horse might think it’s being really smart. It’s right. And what it’s doing, it’s fleeing danger and a human might just say, oh that’s horse. You know, that horse has lost his mind. It’s spooking.
And you can kind of do that with lots of different examples on how a human or you know, not writing from within that first point of, that first-person point of view of the animal it would be a different interpretation. So you really just have to do your research. And figuring out how those are all going to come into play from the animal as a species and then your character your animal as a character and their unique personality. And how that would affect the narrative. If that makes sense.
Sue: That makes a lot of sense. So what are some of your favorite animal point-of-view books and what did those books do well?
Jodi: I absolutely love, love, love the current animal story in my life I’ve toured a lot of zoos and aquariums and animal rescues protected forests and it just was one of those stories that impacted me at the core of my being. And I think that the author did such a great job of having , that’s told from first-person point of view, and from her word choice. It’s very simple text, but the vocabulary is very regal and very thoughtful and it really showcases how intelligent the gorilla is. So it was just a really really wonderful. I also really like the Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner. These books follow a time-traveling golden retriever and there’s exciting history and culture and people and adventurer woven into those stories. When I was growing up, I really loved The Black Stallion, Charlotte’s Web, White Fang. Those human animal [inaudible] stories. Kevin Henkes. That’s two books, or that’s a book that I read with my two kids quite often. I have an almost three year old and almost seven year old and we really love this picture book. And it’s so sweet. It follows the night adventures of a little kitten and she mistakes a full moon for a bowl of milk in the sky.
So that’s like where personality and character come into her animal. And the text is sparse, but every word matters so it’s very lyrical. And the story evolves and there’s such beautiful thoughtful repetition to it. So I do really love that one. Oh, and coming up in 2019, there’s this book called I, Cosmo that’s coming out I think this summer. But it’s by Carlie Sorosiak. She’s actually a YA author so this will be her middle grade debut. And it’s about a golden retriever who likes to dance. So that’s a middle grade that I’m definitely looking forward to reading.
Sue: That’s fun. Can you, your internet glitched out or mine did right at, when you mentioned the gorilla book at the beginning. Can you give me the title and the author of that book again because that’s the only part that we missed. The description we got.
Jodi: Oh sure, it’s called I, Cosmo by Carlie Soroziak.
Sue: Okay, thank you, Do you develop animal characters the voice the arc anything that relates to the character as it develops through the story the same way you would develop a human character or is that a different process?
Jodi: I think it’s a little bit different for me but as I said research always informs my writing so that’s going to be whether it’s for animals or human characters. And I kind of feel like when you’re writing about animals you can brainstorm the character traits after you’ve done the species research. So once you know how your animals usually behave, eat, sleep, live, fight, those things can inform then your unique animal character. So kind of bouncing back to Ferdinand the bull, so he was an animal bred to be a fighter. We understand the Bulls have horns that are very strong. but he had heart so his personality informs the narration. I also like to think though in terms of compared human characters, you know, it’s similar and how I like that I like to showcase how animals relate to one another.
Very much the same way you might see how your human characters relate to one another. So in The One and Only Ivan, Ivan the gorilla has a confidant with Bob the dog. And has relationships with Stella the elephant. And those all inform the story. So once you know your animal then you can tease out those unique character attributes. And then you can have a lot of fun putting them together in scenes to see how they react to one another. Animals are such important characters they can teach us many things about the wonder of nature. About kindness. Compassion. The darkness of humanity.
They can help us see things in ourselves. In my book The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City, the pig named Hamlet helped bring together this big character who is a girl her name’s Josie she’s 11 years old they have this really close bond and Hamlet helps Josie come to terms with growing up when she’s always felt small. And you know I never used to outline back when I was first starting. But now I really see the value in it. And I try to outline my work nowadays.
Sue: That’s interesting. So that was a change for you used to write kind of from the top of your head you were more of a panther at the beginning and now you are a planner?
Jodi: Yes. Yeah. And I like to leave a room for it still to be organic because I really do like to see what you discover on the page. I don’t want it to feel like a formula. But I have so many manuscripts that I never finished from back in the day because I just couldn’t see where I was going. I would just wander and then the rewriting process was just you know, very long and painful. And I found that I’m a much stronger writer if I at least kind of have those plot turns out. And I kind of know where I’m headed with an ending. oh I do like to have that the bones on the page before I get going.
Sue: That’s interesting. How many, how might an animal’s point of view add value to a story that isn’t possible from a human point of view?
Jodi: Well it can do a lot of things. I mean when we tell a story from an animal’s point of view, we can shine a light on the way we treat them. How humans treat them. It can bring about some conversation points there. So hopefully those scenes can foster empathy. But there’s the sign, in The One and Only Ivan, there’s this moment where Ivan is talking to Stella the elephant and she says that zoos are how humans make amends. And I think about that a lot. It was a very poignant phrase that this elephant could recognize. And animals can reveal you know, how humans treat them whether that’s kindly or you know, dangerously. He has reservations about how and so I’m in the gorilla you know, he says that, he describes how humans might view him as angry or what angry behavior is. But he can make an instance about how they only get angry when they’re being protective. And how they need to have something to protect and that’s why he’s not angry. and how you know, he can show about how the zookeeper is treating him or being fearful of him in different circumstances.
So you can kind of show more of the bad and the good with these different relationships. And I think also it’s interesting too because humans and animals cannot communicate. So in a traditional verbal sense. So one example for someone who’s going to do further research. In The One and Only Ivan, there’s a scene where Ivan has these drawings these paintings. And the human person is trying to communicate with is not understanding how these puzzle pieces not if the human is not getting it. And how he starts to act really out of line for him because he is so frustrated that you know, he’s not being understood.
And you can also show there’s a lot of really great research on this stuff. You can also show how circumstances can influence behavior in ways that I just think that is more interesting from the animals perspective. So for example, whether it’s raised in the wild or the zoo and what they’ve been exposed to. And here’s, I want to tell you a couple of resources too for any listeners who want to do further research about kind of being in the mind of an animal. There’s a TED Talk called Inside the Mind of Animals that’s is great. You can watch it on YouTube and Time magazine published article with the same name called Inside the Mind of Animals and National Geographic magazine did an article called, Inside Animal Minds What They Think, Feel and Know and those will help with research because stronger from that first-person point of view.
Sue: Thank you. I will try to put together something in writing so that the resources are listed and people who are listening to the podcast can find them easily.
Jodi: Oh great.
Sue: So look for that as well listeners. Is there a difference between writing a fantasy animal point of view like Endling for example or a contemporary point of view like The One and Only Ivan, or somewhere in between one, like Charlotte’s Web. Is it a different process for each of those?
Jodi: Well there’s a difference because you’re writing in a certain Lane but there isn’t at the same time. I still think you have an obligation to do research and to check your own bias in your work. But Endling, for example, there’s an opportunity to create an entirely new animal species and write your own set of rules. So the species in this book they’re highly intelligent doglike creatures and they can walk upright and talk.and really unique animal characters. But it’s shines the spotlight on things that all readers can relate to in our contemporary society. So the threat of species extinction.
It analyzes how family shapes identity and the destructive nature of humankind. So those are very common themes even though it’s a fantastical story with a made-up animal. In The One and Only Ivan, you can tell how much care the author Katherine Applegate put into her research. Not just some gorillas, but the true backstory of Ivan the gorilla who actually lives right now with, the Atlanta At Zoo Atlanta. And then also the other animals. So there’s a tender moment when these elephants meet for the first time and she’s that they’re trunks entwine. And you’re seeing that scene from Ivan’s point-of-view and even though he’s different species you can see that there’s this tenderness in this greeting of these trucks being entwined.
You know, be able to write that type of story as well. In Charlotte’s Web so Charlotte’s Web you got your talking animals. But most for the most part you know, they’re all operating in their normal behavior as a species. So Charlotte the spider, she’s still weaving webs but obviously, you know she’s writing words in them which is fantastical. But they’re operating and they’re mostly their own truth. And so you know, there are you if you are doing your research and you are being aware of bias and stereotypes Then you can still kind of create a different process just depending on what your genre is. Depending on what you’re wanting to do with your eventual plot.
Sue: Okay, before we go can you how can listeners find you online or learn more about you, your agent, publisher, your books. If you do school visits. If you will Skype call. That sort of thing. How can they find you?
Jodi: So I’m usually on Instagram. My handle is @jodi_kendall on Twitter and on Instagram and my website is Jodi Kendall, jodikendall.com. My agent is Alexander Slater of Trident Media Group and he’s wonderful. He’s also on Twitter. And my publisher for my first two books is HarperCollins Children’s Books and as you said at the top of the podcast, my two books are called The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City and the sequel is called Dog Days in the City and those are both available on shelves anywhere you buy your books.
Sue: Okay, fantastic. Thank you so much, Jodi. That was a great conversation about animals and your research that you’ve done. It sounds like you have really put a lot of important effort as most authors do into developing something really profound for readers. So thank you for that.
Jodi: Thanks so much, Sue I appreciate it.
Sue: You have a wonderful day.
Jodi: All right. Thank you. You too.