When it comes to animal books, there can be no doubt where it all begins. I received 31 recommendations for childhood reading covering a wide range from early books such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Catterpillar and Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit to those that can be enjoyed by all ages like Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild and Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Several respondents mentioned how much they enjoyed having books read to them at a young age. It is perhaps worth reflecting that this magical combination of story and relationship (between listener and storyteller) cannot be replaced by modern media, no matter how advanced. I wonder how many of life’s chapters have their origins in such dream moments.
A big thank you to all who contributed to these lists. Preparing them has been great fun; reminding me over and over of the enjoyment I’ve had (and keep on having) in the world of animals. As pressure on nature mounts year on year and the space for wild animals diminishes, let us not forget just how much we love them!
As before, books mentioned as favourites by two respondents are marked with an asterisk, and by three or more respondents with a double asterisk. Quotations from the books are within double inverted commas, a quote from the publisher or a review is within single inverted commas, and a comment from one of the respondents (or my own occasional remarks) is without any inverted commas.
*Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford (Hodder & Stoughton, 1961) This book touched two respondents quite profoundly. A great story combined with the acknowledgement that animals have an inner life.
**The Very Hungry Caterpillar, written and illustrated by Eric Carle (World Publishing Company, 1969) ‘Eaten holes in the pages and simple text with educational themes – one of the greatest childhood classics of all time’.
*The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame (Methuen, 1908) One youthful senior reports: I read this every couple of years or so and have done since I was 9. It came out in 1910 and the reviewer in the TLS predicted it would have no attraction for either child or adult readers!
**Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling (Macmillan & Co, 1902) As the daughter of one respondent put it, “I love them but then who doesn’t?” Her top two are: How the Rhino got his Skin and the Elephant’s Child. Writing in 1908, H.W. Boynton noted: ‘It strikes a child as the kind of yarn his father or uncle might have spun if he had just happened to think of it; and it has, like all good fairy-business, a sound core of philosophy.’
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling (MacMillan, 1894) ‘Fables in which animals give moral lessons. The verses of The Law of the Jungle, for example, lay down rules for the safety of individuals, families and communities. Kipling put in these tales nearly everything he knew or heard or dreamed about the Indian jungle.’
The Silver Brumby, by Elyne Mitchell (Hutchinson,1958). This is the first in a series of much loved brumby books. In a remote part of the Australian Alps, ‘Thowra, a cream wild horse and his half brother Storm are loners. Even as foals they know their country better than others of their herd. Where they lack in strength, they rely on intelligence and knowledge. Is this enough to help them as they grow from foals to stallions?’ It has been suggested that the reason The Silver Brumby never won an award was because the horses talked. But then the judges were grown-ups!
*The Story of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff (Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1933) ‘After Babar’s mother is shot by a hunter, he flees the jungle and finds his way to the city where he is befriended by an old lady, who buys him clothes and enrols him in school. He returns to the jungle bringing the benefits of civilization to his fellow elephants.’
Zoo-ology, by Joelle Jolivet (Roaring Book Press, 2003) This is a fab book, stacked with cool animals, which I have given as gift to kids aged 1-4, says one respondent. ‘Zoo-ology is filled with beautifully crafted species from the Aardvark to the Zebra connected in thought provoking and unusual groupings of creatures of all shapes and sizes.’
Muddle-Headed Wombat in the Snow, by Ruth Park (Educational Press Pty Ltd, 1966) Follows the adventures of Muddle-Headed Wombat and his friends, a good-natured, practical female mouse and a vain, neurotic male tabby cat. Wombat’s speech is peppered with malapropisms and spoonerisms, e.g. treely ruly for really and truly, and lawn the mow for mow the lawn.
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1971) I presume the Lorax counts as an animal? For me about the best environmental book out there… says one respondent. ‘In The Lorax, we find what we’ve come to expect from the illustrious doctor: brilliantly whimsical rhymes, delightfully original creatures, and weirdly undulating illustrations. But here there is also something more–a powerful message that Seuss implores both adults and children to heed.’
*Running Wild, by Michael Morpurgo (Harper Collins, 2009) A wonderfully gripping and tear-jerking story that captures the relationship between a ten-year old boy and the natural environment into which he is catapulted, within the context of global issues of the Iraq War, S/SE Asia tsunami, deforestation and wildlife trafficking. Another respondent added: my daughter loves the way the life of the boy and elephant become intertwined and eventual both depend on each other for their survival.
War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo (Harper Collins, 2007) War on the front line, seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a horse during World War I. Still running in the West End.
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1961) I identified with the 4 year old hero, who had no love from the adult world and made friends with animals. It’s a brilliant adventure, with great insect characters, team problem solving (James and the insects) and a decent jab at our greedy and paranoid society.
The Enormous Crocodile, by Roald Dahl with illustrations by Quentin Blake (Jonathan Cape, 1978) ‘One day an enormous crocodile goes tramping through the forest telling all the animals he’s going to eat children. The animals tell him that it’s a horrible thing to do but he tries to use his tricks to eat the tasty children nonetheless.’
Greedy Zebra (African Animal Tales), by Mwenye Hadithi and Adrienne Kennaway (Hodder Children’s Books, 1984) I loved this when I was little, writes one respondent – I found out how the zebra got his stripes.
*Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (Harper 1952) ‘About a pig named Wilbur who is saved from being slaughtered by an intelligent spider named Charlotte.’ Publishers Weekly listed the book as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time as of 2000.
Rascal, by Thomas Sterling North (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1963) ‘The young Sterling reconnects with society through the unlikely intervention of his pet raccoon, a “ring tailed wonder” charmer that dominates almost every page.’
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls (Doubleday, 1961) ‘About a boy who buys and trains two redbone coonhound hunting dogs… according to an old Indian legend, only an angel can plant a red fern and wherever it grows is sacred.’
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting (Frederick A. Stokes, 1920) Of the favourites which influenced me as a boy, writes one respondent, first are most of the Dr Dolittle books; they create questions and understanding – a pity that flying to the moon by moth is now even less credible, but that flies have to talk so fast because their lives are short, is a good insight!
The Honey Hunters, by Francesca Martin (Walker Books, 1994) A traditional African folktale for ages 4 and over. ‘There was a time when all the animals were friends: the antelope, the leopard, the zebra, the lion, the elephant and the human-kind.’
Down the Bright Stream, by “BB” (D J Watkins-Pitchford) (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1948). This book opened my eyes to nature like no other. ‘The Little Grey Men are the last gnomes in Britain. They awake in their winter retreat with the appalling news that the Folly Brook is drying up and they must move at once to find a home where they will be really safe.’
The Snail and the Whale, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Macmillan, 2004). My 2 year old son’s favourite animal story – we’ve read it every night for the last 30 nights and I still like! ‘One tiny snail longs to see the world and hitches a lift on the tail of a whale. Together they go on an amazing journey, past icebergs and volcanoes, sharks and penguins, and the little snail feels so small in the vastness of the world. But when disaster strikes and the whale is beached in a bay, it’s the tiny snail who saves the day.’
The Adventure Series, by Willard Price (1949-1980, current publisher is Red Fox). Sneaky choice this one as the series contains fourteen books that ‘chronicle the exploits of budding teenage zoologists Hal and Roger Hunt, as they travel around the world capturing exotic and dangerous animals for their father’s wildlife collection’.
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (Macmillan,1865).“How doth the little crocodile Improve his shining tail, And pour the waters of theNile On every golden scale! How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws, And welcomes little fishes in With gently smiling jaws!”
*Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (Jarrold & Sons, 1877) ‘The story is narrated in the first person as an autobiographical memoir told by a horse named Black Beauty — beginning with his carefree days as a colt on an English farm, to his difficult life pulling cabs in London, to his happy retirement in the country. Sewell’s sympathetic portrayal of the plight of working animals led to a vast outpouring of concern for animal welfare.’
A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum (Collins, 1958) ‘Paddington is always polite and well-meaning, though he inflicts hard stares on those who incur his disapproval. He likes marmalade sandwiches and cocoa, and has an endless capacity for getting into trouble.’
The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne with illustrations by E.H. Shepard (Methuen, 1928) In which Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet build a house for Eeyore…
And for those older children looking for something a bit different:
The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff with illustrations by E.H. Shepard (Dutton Books, 1982)
*The World of Peter Rabbit – The Complete Collection of Original Tales 1-23, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne & Co., 1902-1918). Which is your favourite? Mine is The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. I also love The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers! A favourite of one respondent is The Tale of Pigling Bland.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, by Joel Chandler Harris (D. Appleton and Company, 1880) The first of nine Uncle Remus books featuring the trickster hero, Br’er Rabbit. ‘The tales are based upon folklore from the American South and are told by the venerable family servant to a little boy on a Georgia plantation. Remus, the old storyteller, is wise, perceptive, imaginative, poetic, and gifted with a sly sense of humor. Their hero, Br’er Rabbit, is “the weakest and most harmless of all animals,” but he is “victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox.”’
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (Rex Collings,1972) Evoking epic themes, the novel recounts the rabbits’ odyssey as they escape the destruction of their warren to seek a place in which to establish a new home, encountering perils and temptations along the way. The novel takes its name from the rabbits’ destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England.
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This concludes the four lists of favourite books. I hope you find something of interest – perhaps the twinkle in a bushy eye or the flash of a tail disappearing down a rabbit hole, leading you on to unimagined delights….