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The Cats Who Made Me, Me

One of the skills Alice Ellerby learned on the course was to ‘read like a writer’. Here she looks at how authors of middle-grade fiction conjure the powerful relationships between children and animals.

I was given two cats for my 8th birthday and I am utterly convinced of the character-altering bond that can exist between a child and their companion animal(s). As it became clear that the manuscript I would write on the MA would feature an important child-animal relationship, I decided to look at how authors craft this bond in fiction for 8 to 12-year-olds, the age-group for which I planned to write. The books I looked at were Pax by Sara Pennypacker (which features a boy, Peter, and a fox, Pax), Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis (with a boy, Callum, and an osprey, Isis), and Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (about a girl, Opal, and her dog, Winn-Dixie).

Loss and separation are themes across the novels. Opal, the protagonist in Because of Winn-Dixie, has moved to a new town, and the transition has revived her longing for her mother, whom Opal hasn’t seen since she was 3. Peter, the protagonist of Pax, was 7 when his mother died in a car accident. Both Opal and Peter, grieving for their mothers, feel isolated and alone. When they meet their animals, they find kindred spirits who understand them and their pain. Opal identifies with Winn-Dixie, a stray she has claimed: “I bet you don’t remember your mother much either. So we’re almost like orphans.” Peter finds Pax after he has discovered the fox’s mother at the side of the road who, like his own mother, has been killed by a car. “So soon after watching his mother’s coffin lowered into the ground, he’d felt an unshakable need to bury the body.” Immediately, we understand the shared experience that unites the boy and the fox.

For Callum, in Sky Hawk, his care for the osprey, Isis, is linked to his friendship with Iona who shared with him the secret of the nest. Iona dies part way through the novel, and Callum makes a promise to her that he will look after Isis. Callum’s devotion to Isis becomes a way of honouring his friend’s death. He needs to save Isis because he was not able to save Iona.

Like the orphaned Pax and the stray Winn-Dixie, Isis has a vulnerability. Osprey have not been seen on Callum’s farm for almost 100 years, and the secret of the nest must be kept to protect it from poachers. The jeopardy of each animal raises the stakes of their relationships with the children. The animals need their child protectors just as much as the children need their animals to help them to deal with their losses.

A choice has been made by each author as to how communication takes place between the child protagonist and the animal character. This is linked to the extent to which the animals have been anthropomorphised. In all three novels, the animals are to be read as animals (rather than metaphors for human characters, as in some picture books). As such, the authors are confronted with the difficulty of revealing authentic-seeming thoughts and feelings. Pennypacker, Lewis and DiCamillo have all employed different techniques.

In an author’s note, Pennypacker tells us: “Fox communication is a complex system of vocalisation, gesture, scent, and expression. The ‘dialogue’ in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language.” Rather than purporting to put words into her foxes’ mouths, Pennypacker has offered a translation of what she intends her readers to believe could be the genuine thoughts and communication of real foxes.

Much of their communication is described through the senses: “Grey’s mate approached. She sniffed Pax’s nose and then his flank. She learned of the fight, which did not kill her mate, and of the humans’ explosion, which did.” By enabling the foxes to communicate through scent, Pennypacker can give them sophisticated dialogue without humanising them.

Although Pax and Peter are separated for much of the book, Pennypacker introduces the concept of “two but not two”, to maintain a sense of closeness even when the physical space between the two characters is great. Peter explains “the merging he felt sometimes with Pax, how sometimes he didn’t just know what his fox was feeling but he actually felt it himself.” This is a useful concept as it reinforces the unity of Peter and Pax, even in separation: “Peter wondered again if Pax was hungry. And then had the curious sense that he wasn’t – that tonight, at least, Pax had food in his belly.”

In Sky Hawk, Gill Lewis uses eye contact between Callum and Isis to reveal a silent understanding between the boy and the bird. Before Isis sets off on her migration from Scotland, she lands on a branch next to Callum. “She turned her head, and fixed me with her brilliant yellow eyes. She looked right into me. And suddenly I knew then, in that one moment, I was as much a part of her world as she was of mine.” While we could see Callum’s interpretation of the look as his anthropomorphism of the osprey, Lewis includes passages from Isis’s point of view that corroborate Callum’s understanding: “Somewhere deep inside her, Isis folded the landscape of his face into the mountains, skies and rivers of her soul.”

We are not given access to Winn-Dixie’s internal state in Because of Winn-Dixie. Rather than the author translating his thoughts, this job is done for us by Opal, in the way that many children interpret their pets’ behaviour. “Winn-Dixie looked straight at me when I said that to him, like he was feeling relieved to finally have somebody understand his situation.” Opal’s conviction that she can read her dog binds them together. And DiCamillo finds other ways to keep him present in the story too. When there are scenes that do not immediately concern Winn-Dixie, we are reminded of his presence through his reactions: “I slammed the book shut. Winn Dixie’s head shot up from underneath Gloria’s chair.”

Part of what I love about the bond between children and animals as it is portrayed in middle-grade fiction, is that the adult characters just don’t understand it, or perhaps they do understand it, but they just can’t feel it. This makes it all the more precious and important. In all three novels, there is the sense that one cannot love an animal as an adult as one can as a child. Peter’s father had a dog from whom he was inseparable as a child, and yet he still forces Peter to abandon Pax. Callum’s dad tries to dismiss Callum’s concern for Isis. And when Winn-Dixie goes missing, Opal’s father is all too ready to stop looking for him. The children show a tenacious loyalty to their animals that is unfathomable for their parents.

Animals in middle-grade fiction are more than a comfort. It is because of the fox, the osprey and the dog that their child companions can face complex emotional challenges with courage and determination. The protagonists are fortified by these relationships – they become their best selves – and this endears them to the reader. The formative relationships between children and their animal friends is one I can personally vouch for; I wouldn’t be trying to capture it my own writing if it wasn’t for those two incredible cats. Pax, Sky Hawk and Because of Winn-Dixie illustrate beautifully, and with great skill, the power and integrity of the child-animal bond.

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