Step aside, dogs and cats, bunnies and ponies. Meet the new “it” animal in children’s lit: the squirrel. These bushy-tailed tree acrobats seem to be taking over the world. Not only do my children yell “Squirrel!” as they survey the treed backyard over dinner, but I can’t walk through a bookstore or library without being knocked over by the sheer numbers of squirrel-centric stories. So why, exactly, is the squirrel getting such attention? And is it deserved? Let’s take a look at some standout tales (tails?), and explore why squirrels are so popular in children’s literature.
Over one hundred years ago, Beatrix Potter gave a unique voice to the furry woodland creature in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, thus kicking off the squirrel revolution. It took time for the awesomeness that is the squirrel to catch on, but it has. Today, there is the protective squirrel (Ol’ Mama Squirrel), the gangster/baseball squirrel (The Mayor of Central Park), the problem-solving squirrel (Saving Mister Nibbles!), and the planning squirrel (Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution). Those Darn Squirrels cause mayhem when trying to get into Mr. Fookwire’s birdfeeders, showcasing the attitudes of diligence and resolve that STEM-focused educators so admire. Ulysses, that award-winning squirrel of Newbery fame, gains superpowers of strength and language after getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner, something that Scaredy Squirrel would have observed from the safety of his tree (while adding vacuums to his list of things to avoid). The newest squirrel on the block, Jeb from Lynne Rae Perkins’s Nuts to You, tells the adventuresome tale of escaping the grasp of a hawk and saving his entire community from demise with brave ingenuity.
What do these many fuzzy-tailed creatures have in common? Energy. Creativity. Tenacity. The squirrels of children’s literature delight in a challenge and never give up, attitudes and demeanors that parents and educators strive to highlight and incorporate. With virtues programs and STEM initiatives in schools across the country, the squirrel has made it easier to showcase desired skills and behaviors using highly engaging stories. If As it turns out, these literary squirrels really aren’t so different from the squirrels in my backyard that race across fences and dangle precariously in apple trees, never giving up in the all-consuming quest for food.