As so often, trends come and go in the world of children's literature. These trends are often reflected in awards such as the Caldecott, Newbury, and Carnegie medals. Recent trends in middle-grade fiction include stories of protagonists with magical powers and protagonists facing down against spooky creatures and ghosts. What we don’t see as much anymore is animal protagonists.
While stories from the 2000s like the Warriors series about cats and the Guardians of Ga’Hool featuring owls, these stories are still popular, readers who enjoy this trope don’t see nearly as many hitting bookstores nowadays. Lucky for those readers (and for those looking to acquire some timeless children’s books for their collections), we’ve compiled a list of some of the best novels featuring animal protagonists. Perfect for both the children and collectors in your life, these books are definitely worth investigating:
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH won the Newbury Medal in 1972. Inspired by animal testing performed by the National Institute for Mental Health, it tells the story of a young widowed field mouse who becomes introduced to a society of intelligent rats who were the result of experiments performed at a laboratory associated with the NIMH organization. Mrs. Frisby helps the rats escape extermination while also wrestling with her youngest son’s illness. It focuses on themes of literacy as liberation and social responsibility. It was also the runner up for the National Book Award. It was adapted into a film by Don Bluth in 1982.
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
E.B. White’s 1952 novel Charlotte’s Web is one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. Wilbur, the runt of a litter of pigs, is save from certain death by a young girl named Fern, who cares for him until he is sold to her uncle to be raised for slaughter. On the farm, Wilbur struggles to fit in but eventually makes friends with a spider named Charlotte, who makes it her mission to save him from being eaten by spelling out words in her web. This timeless classic deals with such topics as death and growing up as Charlotte passes away and both Fern and Wilbur grow older and lose their childlike innocence. It has been adapted numerous times, both live action and animation. It was a Newbery Honor book in 1952. In 1970, White won the Laura Ingalls Wilder medal for his contributions to children’s literature through Charlotte’s Web and another book with an animal protagonist, Stuart Little.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Richard Adams’ 1972 debut novel, Watership Down, earned him the Carnegie Medal, England’s premier award for novels for children and young adults. This unique and gripping tale tells the story of a warren of rabbits whose home was destroyed as they journey to set up a new warren. Based on the real behavior of rabbits, it is an adventure story with a message about standing up against tyranny and oppression. It has been adapted several times for television and streaming. These animated films, like the novel itself, is not ideal for younger children but is fast-paced and exciting for children old enough to handle it.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty is among one of the first autobiographies of a fictional animal. While the novel was originally meant to convey a political message to adults about the treatment of horses and the unfair working conditions for horse-drawn cab drivers in London, this story recounting the live of farm foal to cab-puller, to country retiree is now commonly considered to be a classic children’s book. Black Beauty is widely considered to be one of the first “pony books,” which is a subgenre of fiction about the relationship between humans and horses, like the classics My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and the more modern Saddle Club and Canterwood Crest series.
The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo’s 2003 novel, The Tale of Desperaux is a moving story of grief and forgiveness. In this Newbery-winning novel, a young mouse named Desperaux falls in love with a human princess, is banished into the dungeons, and rescues the princess from malevolent rats all while inspiring change in one of the rats who lashed out as a result of his own pain. The Tale of Desperaux is commonly included on lists of the best books for children. It was adapted into a movie in 2008.
Redwall by Brian Jacques
Brian Jacques's 1986 novel Redwall is the first in a twenty-one book series about the woodland creatures living in and around Redwall Abbey. While classified as fantasy, these books offer little in the way of magic or the supernatural, instead focusing on the medieval-style lives of the animal folk. Redwall tells the story of a novice monk mouse, Mattias, who follows in the footsteps of their King Arthur-like figure, Martin the Warrior, to take up arms and defend the abbey from invading rats. The first three Redwall books were adapted into an animated series for PBS. Redwall is a Carnegie medal nominee.