Exploring Animals in Literature
Celebrate Be Kind to Animals Week while teaching empathy and allegory with creature-related texts
By Noel Woodward
For many of us, animals hold a symbolic and personal importance in our lives. This importance is reflected in the way we include them in our everyday routines, and in the way we write about them in literature. While animals become symbols and form parts of complex allegories and comparisons, they sometimes also represent greater ideas and concepts. This year, May 5th-11th is Pet Week and Be Kind to Animals Week. So, why not ask your class to consider the importance of animals?
Texts Featuring Animals
A simple Internet search will yield a surprising amount of texts that involve animals in some way. Here is a list of some well-known writing that features animals to get you started and to help focus your planning:
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Fables by Aesop
- Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
- The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Animals are also present in poems, fairy tales, Native American folklore, and short stories. Take a look through your school textbook, or ask your librarian for more suggestions.
Literary Connection: Animals, Allegory, and Anthropomorphism
Why do so many authors choose to use animals rather than humans to get their message across? Challenge your analysts to think about what animals represent and how the literature featuring them reflects on the human condition.
Aesop’s Fables can be an effective place to begin because they are brief and fairly straightforward. For example, many children have already heard of the tale of the grasshopper and the ant, and can bring some knowledge to the table. You can help give names to what they have experienced in their reading through a brief activity:
- First, for older grades, provide some definitions and have students write them down as notes. I’d suggest allegory, anthropomorphism, and symbolism as a place to begin.
- Next, ask your class to break off into small groups or pairs.
- Provide each group with a copy of your favorite fable and a series of related questions.
- Have group members trade off reading the fable and then writing responses to the questions.
- Suggested questions: What or who do each of the animals represent? What is the moral of the story? Why does Aesop use animals instead of humans to teach this moral? How do the animals reflect on human behavior?
You may personalize this as you wish, choosing the focus that is best for your own unique class. And, while this is a short activity when paired with Aesop’s Fables, it could be extended for a longer work and include more about symbolism and theme. For younger grades, you might read the stories aloud and, after students work with partners or groups, talk about the morals and what type of people the animals represent.
Try This Extension
As an extension activity, incorporate independent reading into your plan. Have your pupils choose their own book about animals to read and analyze. This actually might be more difficult than you think, since many modern books are based on the supernatural or the super-realistic.
Along with the books listed above, you might consider these ideas for readers of various ages:
- Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
- Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
- The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
- The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
- Stuart Little by E.B. White
- The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
- Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This is just a short list of ideas; there are many more! Challenge each individual to find a book that matches his/her interests and relates to animals in some way. Through reading literature about animals, children and adolescents can see the importance of animals and build empathy for other living creatures.
Additional Animal-Related Literature Resources
Introduce your class to literature circles while studying the Newbery Award winner Shiloh. This unit is complete with information about animals as well as printables and discussion questions that can be used for literature circles and more.
Originally planned for a special education class, this series of ideas could be adapted for many different classes. Learners read and interpret fables, paying close attention to the character traits. After reading, class members create their own illustrated fables. A series of other activities are also included.
Use this comprehensive plan to help your class through Animal Farm. The unit, which focuses on allegory and rhetorical devices, includes worksheets, discussion questions, an essay assignment, and extension activities.