This week, Illumination Entertainment releases its latest charming animation – The Secret Life of Pets. Starring Louis C K and Jenny Slate, this is a classic odd couple comedy… with an adorable twist! The odd couple in question are Max and Duke – a purebred pop and his new roommate, Duke the mongrel. The entire story is told from the perspective of the pets, not only Duke and Max, but all the four-legged residents of their Manhattan apartment building as they battle an evil white bunny named Snowball.
It’s always fun to look at the world through a different pair of eyes, and animal narrators have long been a favorite in film and literature. The Secret Life of Pets promises to be a cute new look at the lives of our furry friends, and while it’s sure to include a few jokes for the grown up, it’s a film to appeal mostly to kid and tweens. So to celebrate its release, we’ve rounded up ten of the best creature-centric books for younger readers – if your kids love the movie, head on over to the bookstore and pick up some of these classics for them to enjoy!
Watership Down (Richard Adams)
This classic fantasy is an incredible read, but don’t let the adorable bunnies fool you – Watership Down is a powerful heroic quest, and it can get a little dark at times. Set in rural England, the book follows a small group of rabbits as they leave their warren and strike out alone for a new home. The stories blends country scenes with elements of fantasy and politics as the rabbits brush up against prophecy and military groups. Adams creates a complex social world for these rabbits, along with their own mythology, and even grants them their own language: Lapine. There is a reason that this book has been adapted many times over the years, and it belongs on every animal-lovers bookcase.
Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)
This autobiography of a horse has been charming readers for over a century, and remains a beautiful story about the importance of kindness. From his birth in pastoral England through his life as a carriage horse, Black Beauty meets a range of characters, both equine and human. Each chapter holds a lesson on the nature of relationships and the importance of being a good person (or horse!), yet the book manages to avoid feeling too much like an instruction manual on morality. This is a book to inspire any child to care about animal rights, but it is also simply an engaging tale of a fascinating life.
The Sheep Pig (Dick King-Smith)
Dick King-Smith has written a huge number of children’s books, with many of them centering on our animal companions. However, his most famous work by far is ‘The Sheep Pig’, possibly better known as the movie Babe. About a young pig who wants nothing more than to be a sheepdog, The Sheep Pig is a short and sweet story about fitting in and following your dreams. It’s also a beautiful picture of small farm life, with all of the animals on the farm featured in the story. Even if you have already seen the film, the original book is worth a read (and, as usual, is arguably a much better take on the story than the film).
Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl)
Another children’s classic that has since found its way to the big screen, Fantastic Mr Fox is a long-time favorite for fans of Dahl’s inimitable style. The titular fox is a clever family man, who preys on the livestock of three big dub farmers – until they decide to join forces to take him on. It seems that they are prepared to do anything to stop Mr Fox and his family and friends – but he’s too clever for them, and comes up with the perfect plan to best the farmers once and for all… This book features incredible illustrations alongside Dahl’s gloriously joyful use of the English language, and the story is only a small part of what makes it so magical. The adults, as usual, are dull and stupid, while the animals are quick-witted and kind-hearted – a perfect choice for kids (and adults) who love to challenge convention.
Redwall (Brian Jacques)
High fantasy and anthropomorphic animals meet in this extensive series of books by Brian Jacques – with over twenty in the collection, this is an entire fantasy world to fall in love with. Many different creatures play a part in the sprawling civilization around the Redwall Abbey where the story takes place, split into good guys and bad guys by species – mice, badgers, squirrels and most birds are good, and weasels, foxes, crows and ferrets are generally evil. Legends surround the creatures of Redwall, with a medieval mythology built up around the abbey. The animals even wear capes and clothing and brandish swords – it’s Game of Thrones with woodland animals, and it’s an amazing series.
Guardians of Ga’hoole (Kathryn Lasky)
Another sprawling series featuring critters in armor, the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series starts with a barn owl pushed from his nest, and develops into an adventure spanning generations as the owls search for the legendary Ga’Hoole tree. Military strength and nefarious plots feature heavily as the owls battle evil factions in their attempt to become worthy to be Guardians. Although one or two other animals appear in the books, most conflicts are between types of owl, and readers might learn a lot about these birds through this fantasy world.
Fire Bringer (David Clement-Davies)
Set in Scotland, Fire Bringer is a story of the red deer Rannoch, who is caught between prophecy and murder, and has to flee his herd as a young buck. Living for years also one in the shadow of the Mountain, he meets other animals, and learns to be alone from other deer – but he knows that he has to return and fulfill his destiny. A story filled with magic and legend, Fire Bringer is an uplifting and powerful tale of bravery, and a fantastic stand-alone book for anyone with a love of the wild.
The Labrador Pact (Matt Haig)
One of the most adult-oriented books on this list, The Labrador Pact (released as The Last English Family in Europe) is definitely one for more mature teen readers. Told from the perspective of Prince, a black Lab, the book reveals a world unknown by humans, where household pets are breaking into two factions. The Spaniels lead the cause of selfishness rather than devotion to their humans, but the Labs resist – including Prince, who works tirelessly to save his family, although they don’t understand what he is doing. It’s a bittersweet look at human nature and the love of a dog, and sure to make any dog owner mist up.
Dolphin Way: Rise of the Guardians (Mark Caney)
Mark Caney may not be the first author to wonder if dolphins are more intelligent than they let on (Douglas Adams, of course, famously considered them superior in his Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but Dolphin Way may be the the first book to be told from the dolphin’s perspective. In this novel, dolphins live in a utopian society, entirely in sync with their environment and each other. However, man’s continued abuse and destruction of their world is causing problems, and seeing a rebel faction rise up to try and save their home from humanity. Sky is caught between the old way and the new, violent ideals, as this novel explores ideas of right and wrong and inner conflict between ideas. Beautiful and with an underlying message of conservation, this is an excellent book for teens and adults.
White Fang (Jack London)
Over a century old, White Fang has become a historical fiction, but its central story is timeless and still appeals to anyone who is drawn to the wild North. The story of White Fang, a half-dog, half-wolf, the book follows his life from a wild cub to the companion of a Native American, to a time sold to a dog-fighting pit owner… a very similar (and companion) to London’s The Call of the Wild, this is a second foray into the frozen North told through the eyes of the animals who live there.