“Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal.
As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.”
- C. S. Lewis
So often in books for children, creatures stand in for human children to carry out the action of the narrative. Over the years, I have heard that there are distinctive age groups that favor creature characters and others that reject creature based stories. This discussion has gone on for a very long time and will continue in years to come.
I often think of this because the particular books that had the greatest influence on me as a child, as they do to my grown-up up author self, are the WINNIE THE POOH books by A. A. Milne. I was naturally drawn to the cast of enchanting characters, from bear, piglet, owl, rabbit, kangaroo and on and on. As a little child, I recall thinking it was quite incredible that animals had such a complex community and were dealing with such similar things to what I was experiencing.
When I got older and started to create my own books, I immediately filled my stories with creatures of all sorts and sizes. I had fun drawing them and giving them quasi-human body shapes and gestures. For some reason, I missed the BABAR books as a child and discovered them when I was a teen working in a library. A friend of mine was painting a mural in the children’s room and she featured the nifty little elephant among other characters from picture books. I was taken by the dandy-ish style that Babar displayed. It appealed to my older sophisticated self. Not only that but it was set in chic and urbane France, a place I would grow to feel is my home land.
But, I digress, back to the creatures that crowded my imagination as a child: the world of creatures was my new playground as an author/illustrator considering picture books as a way to express myself. When I finally got around to publishing books, I had to wait until my fourth book until I was free to create a creature other than human. The creature I chose was a giraffe named Rufus who was the littlest member of the theatrical Chandelier family.
By drawing all sorts of animals, birds, amphibians or insects, I noticed that some captured my personality better than others. I seemed to attach myself to the attitude and style that some of these critters exuded more than others.
I became fascinated with the Native American concept of animal totems. A totem is defined as any natural object, animal or being that a person feels closely associated with. These totems, including all non-human species, act as spirit guides and symbolize human feelings or aspirations. These totems are teachers, showing us the way through our human existences. I put two and two together and started to collect a library of books on symbolism and meaning of creatures and objects. Often when I find myself drawing and favoring one sort of creature, I reference these books to learn more about the creature and perhaps discover a spirit or quality that I might be trying to access or express.
My special shelf full of symbolism books is the busiest shelf in my library.
Here are a few of my favorite books, in case you were wondering:
There are many more on my shelf. I depend on them to explain and enlighten my creative path.
“What is your totem creature?” is one of my favorite questions to ask friends and people that I meet. Sometimes I rephrase it by asking “What creature do you most relate to?” It often informs a great deal about the person and usually poses a question that the person might never have been asked. [I would love to keep track over a person’s life to see how or if this changes.]
Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help formulate what your totem creature might be:
These are a few simple questions to start a spark inside for you to find what that creature is that has lessons and guidance for you. Once you answer these questions and have a chance to figure out what your totem might be, try some of these exercises:
I promise that you will enjoy thinking about these ideas. You will surprise yourself and find that you are connected to the natural world in a way that is both instructive and inspiring.
“You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you.
You have to go to them sometimes.”
- A. A. Milne
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