Children’s books are full of animal narrators or animal protagonists, but it occurred to me that adult readers do also enjoy books about animals or even – dare I say it – books narrated by animals? So this blog is not about books for children – that would be far too easy. Although I have included some novels which are supposedly aimed at children, they are only here because I think adults read them too, and throughout, I’m primarily interested in animals which appeal to all ages of reader and who are an essential part of the story. (Spoiler alert – not all of the animals are nice or cute. Though some of them are.)
1. Manchee in Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. This was the first Patrick Ness book I read, having been badgered (see what I did there?) into it by my teenage daughter. Unfortunately she’d forgotten about Manchee’s fate, and I read this book a week after our lovely border collie Ben had been put down. Boy did I weep buckets. But I think I would have wept even if I hadn’t been doggy bereaved. Manchee is a fabulous character. In Knife of Never Letting Go, humans can hear what animals are thinking, and Patrick Ness does a brilliant job of capturing what seems like authentic animal dialogue.
2. Richard Parker in Life of Pi by Yann Martel. From one extreme to another. Patrick Ness has us believing the thought processes of everything from dogs to insects, while Yann Martel keeps his tiger mute and unknowable, but oh such a larger than life presence on the lifeboat (and in the book). Even though he is such a threat to our main character, we’re rooting for them both to survive.
3. The Empress in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere by PG Wodehouse. The Empress is a prize pig, beloved of Lord Emsworth and, like Richard Parker, the Empress doesn’t speak or act in any way (except to eat quite impressive amounts). She seems to remain authentically pig-like, while PG Wodehouse has us laughing out loud at the schenanigans of her fellow (human) protagonists.
4. Pilgrim in The Horse whisperer by Nicolas Evans. It’s a few years since I read this, so I took a look at some reviews on Goodreads and was taken aback by how many people seemed to hate it. I loved this book. Pilgrim (ridden by Grace) is in an accident and both are severely injured. Pilgrim is understandably disturbed by this and is in danger of being destroyed, but Grace’s mother takes horse and daughter to stay with the eponymous horse whisperer to see if he can help. I’ve never been a horsey person, but I found this story moving and believable, and felt desperately sorry for Pilgrim.
5. Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials by Phillip Pulman. OK so the daemons are not really animals, just human souls manifesting as animal, but this aspect of the books is so well thought out and intrinsic to the world building that I felt they had to be included in this list.
6. Boxer in Animal Farm by George Orwell. All of the animals in this short but punchy allegorical novel represent humans – Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, etc, but the genius of this book is having the horses as simple and easily deceived workers in the new socialist state who are ultimately betrayed by their leaders. Boxer – and Clover – are so kind and honest, their fate is heart-breaking.
7. Mrs Norris in Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I think I like Mrs Norris primarily for the genius of her name. In Harry Potter, she is the sneaky cat belonging to the caretaker Mr Filch, who acts as his extra eyes and ears to catch erring students, but she is named after the watchful spy in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. And I think it’s a superb name for a cat. I do also think one of the reasons Harry Potter is so successful is the detailed world building, and you can see this with all of the minor animal characters who are so much larger than life – Crookshanks, Scabbers, Fang… and let’s not forget Hedwig.
8. Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web by EB White. I know what you’re thinking – this is a children’s book, but… have you read it recently? Honestly it’s so good. And one of the things I like about it (and to be fair to myself I thought this as a child reader as well) is that all of the humans in the story focus on Wilbur, the pig, and ignore the miraculous spider. That’s the power of advertising, I guess. Oh, and who would have thought a book about a spider could be so loved and so enduring? Read it.
9. The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. You’re going to say it again, aren’t you. It’s a children’s book. Hmm… It might have originally been written for a particular child (by a childless, slightly odd male friend of the family) but that’s as far as it goes. It’s as much a children’s book as Sergeant Pepper is a collection of nursery rhymes. Anyway, the Cheshire Cat is fabby and worth a whole book to himself I think.
10. Buck in Call of the Wild by Jack London. For such a short book, there is a lot in it. No sentimentality; it’s all about the life of a pack dog on the Yukon Trail in Canada. It really explores what it means to be dog and how narrow the border is between civilisation and wilderness.
I hope you enjoyed my list. I forgot to mention Plague Dogs or Watership Down! Both of these dark, creepy environmental books were brilliant and ahead of their time. I don’t think I could bear to read them again even now. Written by Richard Adams, both were very definitely books for adults, though it was interesting that at the time I think it was suggested they were children’s books because of the animal protagonists.
I also toyed with the idea of including Bob from They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie, but I’m not sure he’s central enough, although he’s pretty important. There were a few other animals I would’ve loved to include. Joey from The Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo. Paddington Bear is one of my favourite children’s book characters. Then of course there are all the talking beasts in Narnia, but to be honest they are all really human beings in furry coats. Homeward Bound is a real tearjerker as well, told entirely from the point of view of the three animals. Can you think of any others I’ve missed?