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Dragons, Unicorns And Talking Lions

Magical animals in children’s fiction

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

During lockdown when schools couldn’t gather students in one place, I had to adapt my author visits very quickly to the virtual world. This meant creating a backdrop for my talks that children could browse over my shoulder as I spoke to them on screen. I used my mantelpiece as a sort of capsule wardrobe to tell a visual story of what my books are about. The mantelpiece came alive with all the diverse elements that play a key part in my stories. It included many quirky items found in charity shops. There was a glass paperweight encasing a perfect snow-capped peak, presided over by the outstretched wings of a mountain bird, a striped feather from a rogue pheasant and a scatter of peculiar-looking seedheads. Significantly, it was also dotted with a menagerie of animals: a monkey; a Himalayan bird of prey; a fox, and my latest additions — a Bengal cat and a sparkly Pegasus. I have been told that the mantelpiece was a real hit with children Zooming in to my sessions from home.

I didn’t grow up in a house full of books, but I did grow up in a house full of stories. My grandmother told me tales filled with Indian gods and goddesses, everyday animals and everyday magic. One of my earliest memories is being tucked into a warm bed, listening to the story of the crow and the bird. These two characters were the stars of the show and of course they could speak. Their story went something like this: the lazy crow lets the little bird do all the work. She builds the nest and fills her store with grain while the crow hangs out in the hedgerows watching on, resisting the bird’s calls for help. When the storms come the crow is unprepared and tries to wheedle his way into the dry home the bird has created. The bird then transforms into a magical god sent to teach the crow a lesson. I never for one moment doubted this extraordinary world of talking animals, which is perhaps why, once I became a reader, I was pulled into books like those by C. S. Lewis and Tolkien.

In classic children’s literature, there are many iconic stories where animals are central characters. For example, in my favourite childhood book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is the lion Aslan who plays the most powerful role. Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan have no trouble whatsoever in believing in him, nor in any of the magic that is central to the story. As a young girl I too believed in this magic and many of the stories I wrote at this age included the most wildly imagined animals. Children, in general, love animals and it is no surprise that many children’s authors include them in their books.

In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the characters’ daemons represent them as animals. Pullman uses the daemon to show an extra layer of a character’s personality. In this case the daemon is defined as in the Ancient Greek, as a divinity or supernatural being, having a nature somewhere between gods and humans. To believe in them you must acknowledge, or at least be open to, an alternate dimension inhabited by human spirits.

In a BBC programme in 2001, Pullman talked about being much more of a realist than living in a world of fantasy. This suggests that even though the world of Lyra Belacqua is filled with daemons, armoured bears and parallel worlds, Pullman’s stories explore what it really means to be human. Pullman goes on to say that ‘our personalities are mutable and changeable at first and gradually settle down as we learn what we are.’ This, I think, sums up the link between childhood and our imagination well; we need to have the freedom during childhood to explore who we are through our imagination and then decide what we want to become. Fiction helps us do this.

Lately there has been an explosion of children’s fantasy fiction which features animals from myth and legend. Cressida Cowell’s infamous How to Train Your Dragon series focuses on the wildly magical nature of dragons. In her books readers learn how to train these creatures as they follow an unlikely hero in Hiccup and his equally unlikely heroic dragon, Toothless.

The latest in this vein is A. F. Steadman’s Skandar and the Unicorn Thief, which hit bookshops in 2022, with its all-singing all-dancing brand of adventure. Having spent the last few years under the cloud of COVID, I think children are more easily drawn into the bright sparkly world of this fantasy book with its hefty marketing campaign behind it. The idea for the series, Steadman said during a BBC Breakfast interview, came to her as she walked down an Oxford street. She imagined that heading straight for her was a boy on the back of a fierce fighting unicorn — a far cry from the rainbow cuddlies of picture-book fame.

My debut children’s book, Asha and the Spirit Bird, features a Himalayan bird of prey, a lamagaia, which Asha believes to be the spirit of her grandmother. This bird connects with the reader and invites them to step into a world of magic which is not bound by the limits of ordinary existence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that the people who are dear to us stay with us for all time? And that when we need them most, they can seamlessly appear if only we could recognise them. In my book, the reader accompanies Asha on a journey of trying to work out what they believe about the mystical bird. It is important that readers are allowed to make up their own minds about this. My job as an author is to give them space to breathe, to build a world where the rules make sense, but are very different to the real world’s.

What unites all these books is the inclusion of animals in their various forms, magical or otherwise. Children want to read these books for the same reason they will spring towards the family pet after a bad day at school. They know where they are with animals. They also know they’re in for a good dose of escapism, especially with the fantasy genre. It gives them a safe way to make sense of an increasingly confusing and complicated world.

It’s often been suggested that children up to the age of about eleven are aware of a place where reality and imagination become interchangeable. Children don’t question the existence of this place or whether the animals that inhabit it have magical powers that can change everything. Children have an ability to suspend disbelief and dive fully into a story world. When this world includes animals that have extraordinary abilities, such as Lewis’s Aslan or Pullman’s daemons, the adventure is just that bit more exciting. The animals bring an extra dimension to the storytelling and make the whole world more layered and nuanced.

When writing for children you have greater freedom than with adult literature, but you also have greater responsibility. You can take your reader to the darkest depths of what it means to be human, but ultimately you must show them that however tough things get, hope is always on the horizon and that’s where we’re headed.

This idea is at the heart of my own stories. The aim through my books is to take my reader on a journey where they will learn a little more about their own behaviour in relation to other people. Including animals in these stories – and a sprinkle of magic – means the universe can be painted more vividly and if my reader decides to trust me, I can take them somewhere they have never been before.

Jasbinder Bilan is the Costa Award-winning children’s author of Asha and the Spirit Bird. In her writing she loves creating magical worlds inspired by her love of nature and wild places. Her latest book is Xanthe and the Ruby Crown.

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