‘How could books about wizards, werewolves, hobbits and fairies be desirable, but books about real-life animals not be? Have the animal books that I loved so much in my youth died a death?’
Today I have a guest post featuring a topic very much worthy of a continued discussion. When author and Irish writer, June Molloy, approached me about reading and reviewing her latest book, Guardian of Giria, I explained that I didn’t read children’s literature but my daughter occasionally will provide a few lines for me if it’s a genre she is interested in. But… my words to June were ‘Unfortunately she doesn’t read animal books so I’m afraid I will have to decline your offer.’ I did, however, offer a guest post slot as I love to support Irish writers where possible.
June’s response was very positive and she kindly emailed me on her thoughts and feelings in this fascinating post entitled ‘Are Animal Books Waning in Popularity?’.
Please do read on for June’s very interesting thoughts and words on the subject. Do you think there is a decline in interest in books about animals among kids?
We would love to hear your thoughts on this…
Are Animal Books Waning in Popularity?
by June Molloy
In 1972, two years before I was born, a small publisher in London published a novel about rabbits. It was not expected to sell well. It was too long and too complex for children, and what adult would want to read a book about rabbits? As it happens, the original print-run of 2,500 copies sold out almost immediately and “Watership Down” went on to sell over 50 million copies worldwide, winning its author, Richard Adams, both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Prize.
Growing up in the 80s, there seemed to be lots of books featuring animals as main characters. Among my favourites were “Black Beauty”, “The Silver Brumbies”, “The Wind in the Willows”, “The Call of the Wild” and, of course, “Watership Down”. When the first of Tom McCaughren’s “Run with the Wind” series was released in 1983, I was immediately smitten and followed the adventures of Black Tip, Vickey and Sage Brush for many happy years. This was my kind of animal book – stories told from the point of view of the animals but preserving the animals’ natural habitat and traits. There were no moles riding in boats or toads driving cars. I also loved that the red foxes featured were a species that lived in my own country. The Jungle Book is great and what is exotic is always exciting, but I loved the idea that this story could be happening in the countryside near where I lived.
This was what I set out to achieve when I wrote “Guardian of Giria”. I spent many happy hours researching the behaviour of European wildlife so that I would properly represent the animals in the story. Each species retains their own specific traits – some are monogamous, some are polygamous, some eat meat, some eat plants, and so forth. They talk, obviously, as it would be impossible to relate their story otherwise, but they are still wild animals doing what wild animals do – striving to survive.
When I finished writing and editing the book, I started sending it out to agents and publishers and was surprised to find that many did not want books told from an animal perspective. I was also told by a prominent children’s author that books about animals were not as popular as they once were and advised that my next book not be about animals. (I hasten to add that this advice was given with the absolute best of intentions, but simply reflects the author’s view of the current marketplace.) I was really confused. How could books about wizards, werewolves, hobbits and fairies be desirable, but books about real-life animals not be? Have the animal books that I loved so much in my youth died a death?
The answer, I believe, is no. Animal books, particularly those aimed at middle grade readers (8-12 years old), are just as popular as they always were. Tom McCaughren released a new book in the “Run with the Wind” series in 2016. His publisher, O’Brien Press, also released a new edition of the entire series that year, demonstrating the popularity of these books. Look also at the success of the “His Dark Materials”, “Warriors” and “Wings of Fire” series. The “Warriors” authors, the syndicate known collectively as Erin Hunter, can’t write the books fast enough, with eighty-six books published in the series since 2003 – on average over five books per year! There are also fifteen books in their “Seekers” series (about bears), sixteen in the “Survivors” series (about dogs) and two in the “Bravelands” series (about lions). These books consistently rank well on Amazon and have thousands of reviews.
That said, they are nowhere near the top of the charts, either in children’s books or even in the “animals” subcategory. By far, the majority of books in the Amazon’s Top 100 Children’s Books are picture books, aimed at kids below 8 years old. Similarly within the “animals” subcategory, most of Top 100 are picture books, with only ten books in the top 100 being aimed at middle grade. (The highest ranking of the “Warriors” series is at #94.)
I found this both confusing and unsettling – why are most of the kid’s books sold on Amazon being bought for younger kids? Do kids read less as they get older? Or is it just that they read fewer, but longer, books? I really hope it’s the latter.
Trying to decipher Amazon’s rankings is nauseating, to say the least. Rankings on all Amazon sites update constantly based on live sales. Unfortunately, they also lump all children’s books into one category – they do not have a separate list of bestsellers in the 8-12 age group. However, browsing the popular titles in the 8-12 age group, it is clear that it is a very diverse category. While the younger age group is dominated by animal books, the older age group contains a broad mix. For the most part, the main character is 11 or 12 years old, but they can be either male or female, and the struggles they face or adventures the partake in are very wide-ranging.
It is fantastic that there is such diversity amongst middle grade books and I know that publishers and agents are pushing to increase this diversity even further, insuring inclusion of a wider range of races, ethnicities, sexual and gender orientations, feminist issues, mental health issues and physical disabilities. There is room for all of this, and more. But I strongly hope that books featuring animal protagonists do not get lost in the wash. There is plenty of evidence that kids are spending less time outdoors than they did when I was a child and I fear that this will reduce their interest in wildlife and the natural world around them. Books featuring common wildlife animals like foxes, rabbits, hedgehogs and birds can help foster a love of wildlife and perhaps even encourage kids to get outside and explore this rich natural world for themselves.
(Note: All Amazon rankings refer to Amazon.com.)
About the Book:
Felix is in a bad mood. An intruder has visited his private clearing. The only traces are a strange scent and an even stranger set of footprints.
A few days later, a young fox cub goes missing and her frantic mother asks Felix for help.
Felix investigates and discovers two enormous wolves. He realises the residents of Giria Wood are now in great danger and immediately devises a plan to guard the animals and eliminate the wolves.
What follows is an exciting adventure as the animals band together to protect and defend against this new threat
Purchase Link ~ Guardian of Giria
June Molloy is a writer and photographer from Wexford who currently lives in Lithuania. She has written two books – a cookbook and memoir based on her award-winning blog, www.myfoododyssey.com, and an animal fantasy adventure for older children called ‘Guardian of Giria’, inspired by the wildlife and nature surrounding her home in Lithuania.
She can be found online at www.junemolloy.com, on Facebook (junemolloywrites) and on Twitter (@june_molloy).
Wonderful post! My son loved the Warrior series, Watership Down and also Brian Jacques Redwall series.
It’s such an interesting topic isn’t it Nicki. All kids are so very different in their choices. So many external influences surrounding them these days.
Whilst volunteering at the library again this summer I’ve noticed that kids still like reading Roald Dahl though, which is great, and I’ve even seen Enid Blyton crop up a few times.
All classics which is great to hear. I wonder are the newer releases as popular though??
David Walliams is very popular and there are quite few fairy unicorn books as well. Oh yes and There are some animal books by Amelia Cobb about a rescue zoo that are very popular as well.
You know your children’s books Nicki:) Fairies were v popular in our house and Enid Blyton of course:)
When you see the same books over and over you tend to remember them! 😀
Really interesting. I think there is still room for animal stories. My own girls enjoyed them and so do my young nieces.
June does make some very interesting points Joanne. It was all Enid Blyton and Winnie the Pooh in our house!! Thanks for taking the time to read the post!
You pose some really interesting questions and theories here. I work in a secondary school (11-18) in the U.K. and teach English, and the fact is that children are reading less in general. There is a definite decline in stories and books written about or featuring animals for younger readers, although I don’t think that’s because children are less interested. Watching nature documentaries is one of my tutor group’s favourite ways to kill registration time, and watching their reactions to the behaviour of creatures great and small is priceless – it usually entertains them more than any S.M.A.R.T. phone or film would. I think more writers simply need to embrace the genre and the children will too.
Luke thank you so much for taking the time to add your really interesting thoughts to June’s words. It’s a very unfortunate situation we find ourselves in where children are reading less and the constant need to be online is most definitely contributing to this decline. I love how you embrace nature in your groups. Mine love watching Attenborough on TV…such a unique person. Hopefully both writers and children will embrace the genre more and make reading an exciting place for all children to get lost in!