The Animal Family belongs to the second “golden” age of children’s literature in the 1960’s when editors encouraged successful adult writers to write books for children. In 1961, Michael di Capua, then a young junior editor at Macmillan, invited Jarrell to translate a few fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and to write his own children’s books. Published after two translations of fairy tales and two original books, The Animal Family received rave reviews from such writers as P. L. Travers and John Updike. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 1966 and received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970. The visual images conjured by the words were so compelling that Maurice Sendak restricted his work to “decorations” for the book, landscape settings with no figures present. The result is an exceptionally harmonious blend of text and illustrations.
A few critics mistakenly connect Jarrell’s story to Hans Christian Andersen’s lachrymose mermaid tale. For most readers and critics, however, The Animal Family is not only Jarrell’s best children’s book but also a modern classic still read in both hard-cover and paperback editions. It is often compared to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (1943; The Little Prince, 1943), another book for both children and adults. Jarrell’s transformation of a stern folktale into a psychological fairy tale realizes the promise of the book’s prefatory quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Say what you like, but such things do happen—not often, but they do happen.” Jarrell made such things possible.