Tuesday, April 03, 2012

It’s a Jungle Out There: Writing Animal Fantasy

By Barry Wolverton

JH: I'm delighted to welcome children's author Barry Wolverton to the blog today. Barry writes about animal characters, which I know is a challenging sub-genre to break into. How many times have you seen "No talking animal stories please" on an agent's what I represent list? So today, I hope those with talking animals stories can find a few insights in Barry's approach that will help them find success as well.

Barry is the first human ever granted access to the walrus library at Ocean’s End, where he conducted extensive research for NEVERSINK, his first book. In addition to Walrus he speaks Chicken, although actual chickens don’t appear to understand him. He lives with a moderately overweight cat named Charlie (who understands him but doesn’t listen) in Memphis, TN. Visit him at www.barrywolverton.com.

Take it away Barry...

When I started out to write NEVERSINK, I wasn’t thinking about genres or publishing niches, and I wasn’t familiar with the category “animal fantasy.” I’m not sure I thought seriously about trying to become a published author. I’m an animal lover, and through a strange set of circumstances I had a character in mind that I thought was terribly underrepresented in kids’ publishing—the humble puffin.

I’m sort of glad I didn’t know more going in. The first thing my agent said to me when she signed me up was, the biggest obstacle to selling NEVERSINK is the fact that all the characters are animals. And even worse, birds. I guess there was (and still is?) some fatigue in children’s publishing for talking animal books, and I have since learned that in some potential readers, talking animals cause an iron curtain of disinterest to descend over their brain.

I can understand this somewhat. Talking animals can become cloying in their cuteness, and they have been done to death. But so has anything good, hasn’t it? So if you have an animal fantasy in mind, let the animals chatter away! You just need to decide which kind of talking animals you want. The kind that are almost purely anthropomorphic, or stand-ins for human characters? Or the kind where animals behave as animals (even if they come into conflict with humans), and the “talking” that goes on is just the author’s translation of their communication?

Either can be done really well. REDWALL is more or less a medieval castle siege story with mice and rats, but Brian Jacques’ jillion fans don’t mind. WATERSHIP DOWN takes you into the rabbits’ world on their terms, even though their conflict comes from human encroachment. Or just compare the Pixar films, “Ratatouille” and “Finding Nemo.”

I prefer the WATERSHIP DOWN or JUNGLE BOOK approach, where the animals’ behavior and even the conflict is grounded in the natural world. Ultimately I wanted kids to appreciate why the puffin is so well-adapted to sea life, or why owls can’t just catch fish like puffins when their own food supply is jeopardized.

I didn’t stick to this absolutely, but that was sort of on purpose—NEVERSINK is intended to be both part satire and part homage to the classic animal book. So for instance, you have the character of Egbert, a literate walrus, who is more anthropomorphic that any of the bird characters, but whose flights of sophistication are a constant annoyance to most of his fellow colonists, and often get him and the birds in trouble. You have a corrupt faction of the owl parliament that wears hats. Although I maintain that if birds can engineer intricate nests they could certainly make hats.

I’m sure some will be bothered by this occasional lack of consistency, but it’s not worth spending so much of your life writing, revising, and trying to sell a book if you don’t take a few risks and indulge a few whims.

Perhaps the best thing about writing an animal fantasy is that the characters so easily come to life, with often outrageous physical traits and behavioral tics that would make Charles Dickens proud. I mean, just look at the puffin! It looks like something Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear would have invented if it didn’t already exist. An owl that’s basically a head on legs? Hummingbirds and walruses?

I loved the idea of doing an animal story with birds especially. My uncle is a naturalist and used to take me bird-watching as a kid in Mississippi. Birds are so expressive and have such strange names—to say nothing of their collective nouns (a parliament of owls, a conspiracy of ravens, an improbability of puffins!)—that I loved the idea of creating a story around them in their own world. I relied on field guide research into the habitats and behaviors of auks, owls, and other creatures in the story so that my two main settings, Neversink and Tytonia, would be true to their needs.

And I wanted the conflict grounded in natural science. For my story that meant territory and food—basic needs any of us can relate to. Lockley’s attempts to save his home from owls also depends on the natural resources available to him. He can’t make weapons and go to war against large birds of prey; he has to figure it out another way.

About Neversink

Along the Arctic Circle lies a small island called Neversink, which wouldn’t be considered much worth saving by many talking animals. But for Lockley Puffin and his fellow sea-birds, the remote and rugged habitat is just perfect.

They have few concerns other than Egbert, a scholarly walrus with an opinion on everything, and Ruby, a vagrant hummingbird prone to withering put-downs.

All that changes when Rozbell, a pygmy owl with a Napoleon complex, takes control of the Parliament of Owls, the governing body of the territory that includes Neversink. Can Lockley, Egbert and Ruby stop an owl invasion?

Neversink Blog Tour – March/April 2012
Tuesday, 3/27 – Guest Post at Nerdy Book Club
Wednesday, 3/28 – Guest Post & Giveaway at Cari’s Book Blog
Thursday, 3/29 – Interview & Giveaway with Teach Mentor Texts
Friday, 3/30 – Review & Giveaway at Buried in Books
Saturday, 3/31 – Guest Post at Buried in Books
Saturday, 3/31 – Review & Giveaway at Icey Books
Sunday, 4/1 – Review & Giveaway at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia
Monday, 4/2 – Review & Giveaway at The Write Path
Tuesday, 4/3 – Guest Post with The Other Side of the Story
Wednesday, 4/4 – Interview with There’s a Book
Thursday, 4/5 – Interview & Giveaway with National Children’s Book Examiner
Friday 4/6 – Author/Editor Interview at Another Gray Day


  1. That sounds great!
    I'm delighted to hear animal fantasy stories are being published, can't wait to read it.

    You've given me hope. Last year I wrote a Chapter Book about a pair of cats being forced to live together courtesy of their humans getting married. And the humans then adding a puppy to the family.

    Ok, so it was an analogy about blended families, something many children are forced to deal with. However, anybody in the publishing world I mentioned it to responded with a sad "no". It felt like the genre was radioactive!

    Good to hear there's hope, I might drag it out of the trunk.

  2. Wow! Sounds like a great story! Thank you for sharing and thanks to Janice for bringing you on board. :)

  3. Good luck to you Barry! So glad you were able to break through with what you love to write about. Anything can be done - it just has to be done really well!

  4. Interesting approach to this topic. Thanks for getting Barry to do this, Janice.

    You know I've also endured much angst and frustration on this very subject, and it's always nice to meet one more writer who faced the same obstacles, but succeed anyway.

    Plus, it's nice to meet a fellow male writer who shares similar sensibilities in storytelling to me, that alone is rare in and of itself. This was a two in one deal for me. For that, I'm grateful to you both.

    In fact, this will inspire a new post on my blog, Talking Animal Addicts (Shameless plug, I know, but it's on topic! How could I resist...).

    That said, I haven't talked much recently on my own approach of this genre of fiction, as I've focused more on general writing topics that aren't specific to any one genre, though fantasy is the primary focus, but your experience has given me new ideas to approach this topic from a new angle.

    I started to go into it here, but it's better to go more in depth on T.A.A., so for those of you interested in my views of the subject, may find my multi-part series "The Humanity Behind the Beast" and this month's "Letter From The Editor" gives another perspective that expands on what you've read here today.

    Barry and Janice, thanks again to you both.

    You've given me enough food for thought to write a month's worth of blog posts in just this one, thanks for giving me that boost of inspiration I really needed, which is part of why my regular posts have stalled.

    Mostly though my life offline and working on my new WIP has kept me from giving the blog the attention it deserves, but it's getting better.

    Ciao for now,

  5. Neversink looks fantastic. You're right -puffins are under represented!

    I love talking animal stories- and I'm glad you mentioned the two different approaches. I just adored the `Redwall' series as a kid, and `Watership Down' when I discovered it a couple years later. One thing they taught me is that talking animals don't have to be cutesy. I respected both authors a lot for not talking down to their audience.

  6. Taurean, I thought of you immediately when Barry first suggested this topic. I'm glad his post offered some good suggestions (and support) for you!

  7. A little off topic, but... is NEVERSINK based on the American Revolution? I mean, colonies, taxation (without representation), and even a puffin version of the Boston Tea Party (the Goddess-Angering Angry Auk Fish Dump?)... It's all there...

  8. Is NEVERSINK based loosely on the American Revolution? I mean, it's got colonies, Parliament, taxation without representation, and even a puffin version of the Boston Tea Party (the Goddess-angering Angry Auk Fish Dump Bonanza?).