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Peter Bunzl on his Favourite Animals in Children's Literature

Posted on 7th January 2020 by Mark Skinner

Peter Bunzl's sensational steampunk series, The Cogheart Adventures, has captured the imaginations of millions of children and, in the mechanical fox Malkin, introduced one of the most memorable animal (well, mostly) sidekicks in modern children's fiction. In this exclusive essay, Bunzl highlights the creatures and critters that he has loved reading about. 

I love animal sidekicks. Whether care-worn teddies, beloved family pets, imaginary friends, or wild things, animal sidekicks represent the real and imagined creatures we encounter in childhood. They are engrained in our myths and fairytales and they’ve been part of our history since the first dog sat by our fireside or the first cat walked by himself.

My children’s middle-grade series The Cogheart Adventures features an animal sidekick named Malkin. Malkin is a mechanical fox and unlike a real fox he can talk. But just like a real fox, if real foxes could talk, he has high-minded opinions about everything.

Malkin is snarky and gets away with it because he’s such a loveable rogue. That’s the attraction of animal sidekicks, they can be anything you want them to: nurturers, wisemen, tricksters, clowns, confidants, pocket-sized parents, or mirrors reflecting the hero’s best, worst and wildest self. In the fourth and final Cogheart adventure, Shadowsea, Malkin is faced with the most peril yet, but his bond with Lily and Robert will pull him through. Though Malkin might not like the idea of being a sidekick – he’s his own main character! 

Here are five of my favourite animal sidekicks from children’s literature…

Pooh Bear in the Winnie The Pooh books by A. A. Milne

Unlike the other animals on the list, Pooh is not meant to be a magical version of a real bear – he is a teddy come to life. He is also not a sidekick in the traditional sense. If anything, Christopher Robin is the sidekick to Pooh.

The rest of the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood, are sort of stand-ins for Christopher Robin's extended family. He visits them on occasion and when he’s not there they have their own adventures, which are of the kind Christopher Robin might imagine and act out them having since they are his toys.

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Arguably the most famous bear in children’s literature tangles with bees, woozles and the dreaded heffalumps in the first volume of charming stories from A.A. Milne. Introducing a cast of characters that have become as comforting as warm honey, Winnie the Pooh remains a magical read.
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The Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Picture books are full of animal sidekicks, but my favourites (who are more monstrous than animal) are the Wild Things. Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, wrote that the Wild Things were based on various elderly relatives who used to scare him as a boy, when they visited his family.

The hero of the story, Max, is not scared of the Wild Things. He joins their gang, be-comes their King, and is soon bossing them about. In the end, though, as in most picture books, Max's adventure makes him realize how much he misses his mother and the calm comfort of home. So he leaves the Wild Things and their wild ways and returns to her.

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Commonly accepted as the most important and influential picture book ever published, Sendak’s masterpiece contains enough subtext and double meaning to sustain numerous doctoral theses. But aside from its fascinating ambiguities, the tale of angry, petulant Max and his enchanted journey to the Wild Things’ kingdom is simply a wonderful story, masterfully told and illustrated.
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Sally Jones in The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

Sally Jones, the eponymous ape of the title, is ostensibly the narrator and writer of this story. Her voice is as warm and fuzzy as a friendly gorilla's should be. She is the animal sidekick, friend and first-mate, of the Captain of a steamship named the Hudson Queen. When the Captain is framed for murder Sally sets out to clear his name.

The fact that Sally is mute and cannot speak to the other characters in the story somehow enhances her thoughtful, observant, intelligent nature and her ability as narrator to see what others can’t. As she travels the world in search of clues to save the Captain, Sally has a wealth of observations about human nature, looking in from the outside at how people behave.

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A glorious, sophisticated period mystery rich in adventure, heart and a long list of unforgettable characters, The Murderer’s Ape became an acclaimed crossover success with its gripping story of a very talented ape out to avenge the wrongful conviction of her best friend. Blessed with exquisite illustrations, Wegelius’ sprawling epic is a fabulously immersive reading experience.
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Scabbers in Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

Dumbledore has Fawkes, his loyal phoenix. Voldermort has Nagini, his terrifying snake. Hagrid has all kinds of dangerous creatures, including: a tarantula, a three-headed dog, a hippogriff, a dragons and a load of Blast-Ended Skrewts! Harry has Hedwig, his faithful snowy owl, who like all owls in the wizarding world is a messenger. Hermione has Crookshanks, her bandy-legged, ginger cat. And Ron has Scabbers…

Scabbers is a horrible pet rat, and possibly my favourite creature in the Harry Potter universe because what we discover about him is so surprising it changes the course of the story. Scabbers is a narrative plot-twist in animal form.

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The book that launched a billion young readers feels just as fresh, fun and meticulously rendered as it did over twenty years ago. Hogwarts, Muggles, Diagon Alley, Quidditch; the magical journey all started here, with a wide-eyed young wizard and an old-fashioned battle between good and evil.
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Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Pantalaimon is the animal daemon of Pullman’s protagonist Lyra. A nervous worrier, an over-thinker and a stickler for obeying authority, Pan has an intuition for when people are trying to trick Lyra. Lyra herself is fiery, sly, impulsive and an excellent liar. She always makes choices that are true to her emotions. Pan is her exact opposite and this contrast is what makes them a good combination in the story.

Everyone in Lyra’s world has their own daemon. Adults’ daemons have settled in the form of one specific animal, but children’s daemons are special because they can change into any kind of creature under the sun. This is because the children are still changing and growing themselves, trying to work out who they’re destined to be, so consequently their daemons change too. Pullman’s metamorphosing animal-spirits seem to me the perfect representation of the innocence and flux of childhood versus the stasis and conformity of adulthood.

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The first volume of Pullman’s iconic fantasy saga is a stunning display of storytelling, characterisation and world-building that leaves all its competitors and imitators for dust. Set in an alternate universe of species-shifting daemons, magical artefacts and forbidden knowledge, Northern Lights is the first step on a phenomenal journey of literary discovery.
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Who are your favourite animal sidekicks? Let me know if there are any I’ve missed… unlike Pokemon, I can’t catch them all!

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