Books that use animal characters as people can add emotional distance for the reader when the story message is powerful or painful. Animal characters are used to elicit empathy and compassion for the world around us. Authors highlight specific and relatable character traits in order to appeal to human emotions and vulnerabilities.
Simply put, anthropomorphism involves assigning a human trait to an animal or object.
One anthropologist, Stewart Guthrie (1993), actually argues that all religions are systematic anthropomorphism—attributing human characteristics to non-human things and events. He goes on to explain that we live in an ambiguous world and our survival depends on our ability to interpret it.
Take Winnie the Pooh, the characters are reputed to be the different parts of Christopher Robin’s psychological states. This helps younger children to interpret the abstract ideas of emotions and mental health as it relates to their emotions. Everything from obsessive compulsive disorder being represented by Rabbit to social anxiety being represented by an always worried Miss Kanga to Roo’s autistic like “stimming” behaviors.
- Pooh is Impulsivity
- Piglet is Anxiety
- Roo is Autism
- Tiger is ADHD
- Eeyore is Depression
- Rabbit is OCD
- Kanga – Social Anxiety
- Owl is Dyslexia
Winnie the Pooh is impulsive with his drive to find honey to eat to the point he gets stuck in situations that aren’t very conducive to his well being at times.
Piglet is always anxious, remarking about his worries on how something might turn out or if they may or may not get out of the trouble they find themselves in.
Roo displays autistic behaviors with his constant “stimming” like bouncing around all the time. Withdrawing into Miss Kanga’s pouch when over stimulated.
Tiger is bouncing everywhere and anywhere at all times in a “go, go, go” fashion. Never staying put for very long, always moving and bouncing from one foot to another. Never “paying attention” to one thing for a long period of time.
Eeyore with his slow moving, “woes me” slow voice. Always remarking on the downside of any given situation. Always a pessimistic outlook.
Rabbit is obsessive and compulsive. When the his obsession doesn’t quite go the way he wants it too. Highly anxious when something isn’t in its place.
Miss Kanga, always worried what others may think. Worried how she and hers are perceived or taken by others. Always worrying about the “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Owl with his funny way about it, with his backwards speaking and mixing things up but getting it right in the end.
These are all personifications of human mental health traits and disabilities. The anthropomorphic use of these animals in a fantasy world helps explain the abstract concepts of why we do things without thinking, or worry about who thinks what about us, even why some of us have difficulties sitting still or reading like others might. Children don’t develop abstract thinking until well into their late teens and early twenties. Using this type of learning tool helps us teach them these abstract concepts with much more ease.