″My dogs rarely look like dogs″ | Global Ideas | DW | 18.05.2015
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Global Ideas

"My dogs rarely look like dogs"

Animals play a major role in books by author and illustrator Sybille Hein. In conversation with Global Ideas, she explains why young readers feel drawn to four-legged protagonists.

Animals play a decisive role in your children's books. Is there a particular reason for that?

I find it easier to draw animals than people. It is requires much greater skill to give a human face expression, and it's also a lot more fun to give animals an amusing character. When you draw a cat, you don't have to explain much, because the face tells the story. It's the same with most animals, so the appeal is to explode the pre-conceived notions that people have about certain animals.

Does that mean you stray from real life characteristics of the animals you are drawing?

The exciting thing is that you can play with the perceived characteristics of a given animal. We don't know the extent of animals' personalities, and because what we see is limited, it is easier to tell children stories about them. Bears are generally seen as being big, brown and cuddly, and are rarely portrayed in a bad light. It's the same with a lot of animals. Donkeys, for example, have something goofy about them. They are a little bit like fairytale characters, in that you start with a pre-conceived idea and let the story evolve from there.

Why do animals make such good protagonists in children's books?

Because they're soft, they have fur, and because in German children's literature at least, they are almost always cute and hardly ever dangerous. That means they're children's friends. The really wild, untamed animals, animals that scare people, rarely feature in stories.

Do you think they should?

There is something wild about animals, something unpredictable, but that can also be thrilling and dangerous. And this danger, which is hard to understand and assess, can also be exciting. If cats are only ever cute and elephants only ever walk around blowing their trunks, it is hard to develop any kind of real relationship.

Do you think children form their pictures of animals from story books about them?

Absolutely. I think it is particularly true of children who live in the city. Winnie-the-Pooh had an influence on us, and my children would think a bear is an affectionate friend, who always comes up with the right idea at the right moment.

Do you base your characters on real animals?

One of the advantages with animals is that everyone can invent their own. My dogs rarely look like dogs. They are creatures with ears and a tail, and I think a lot of children would take them to be pigs. But that doesn't matter. They represent something good, a good friend, and I think they give children courage.

Do some animals appear in your books more often than others?

Cats and mice, because they have a special relationship that I find entertaining. I generally draw them in reversed roles, so shrewd mice versus cats that are confused and out of their depth.

Which of your characters are particularly popular among readers?

I have one called "Fritzi Mausi" for really small children. They like her because she has a lot of childlike characteristics. She is cheeky, does what she wants and is part of a big, fairly chaotic family. It's a lot like a human family, which is also something children really enjoy. Likewise the idea that even a really little person can trick everyone and have the best ideas in the world.

Do you have a favorite character?

I really like Fritzi Mausi myself. You always include aspects of yourself in your drawings, and that is easier with animals than with people. I like the mouse with its big ears and funny appearance. It's the same with people. I like the ones that look a little funny, and less polished.

Sybille Hein has written and illustrated numerous children's books. She is currently working on a novel for adults.

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