Abigail makes a good point in Like a Real Life where she asks “why are children’s picture books hardly ever about children?” She raises the issue of anthropomorphism in a slightly different way: are real children really “soooo thirty years ago”?
I suspect I have an answer of some sorts, but before we go that way, I’d like to echo the idea that Like a Real Life explores: there are good books with animals standing in for humans, and there may well be some decline in humans as main characters – although I think a really effective bit of time-sampling would be needed to make this claim securely (just to play Devil’s Advocate, for example, I might cite Charlie and Lola, and the great Bear Hunt itself).
But no: alongside Charlie and Lola, as Like a Real Life suggests, are the Julia Donaldson brigade, great stories, massively well marketed and brilliantly produced, with frogs, and mice.
Where I think the animal stories succeed is in blurring limitations of time, space and culture. That’s not to say they are bad because of this, but that Room on the Broom, for example, may be “about” sibling rivalry or how people learn to get along but is not boundaried by portrayals of a period of time, class, ethnicity &c., as (perhaps) the work of Mary Hoffman or Shirkey Hughes might be. This might, the cynic in me argues, come down to marketing, although you could argue (see my post on Diversity) that this is a weakness: that a frog cannot ever really stand in for a marginsalised child, for example. If this comes down to identification then we have to develop a much more acute sense of what is being signified by this mouse, that badger, good and bad wolves, so that we can “leave in the magic, leave in the bizarre and the adventure” and still let the children be in on the game.