Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Great Children's Books About Animals

Have you ever read something written that so totally described you that you wondered if the author had read your secret diary? I have. Here it is.
One of my mother's favorite stories about my childhood is the time she heard me sobbing in my bedroom, and came in to see what was wrong.

"Christie, what is it?" she asked from the doorway. "Why are you crying like that?"

I looked at her, my face a swollen mess. "I'm crying because Charlotte died, and she saved Wilbur's life!"

"Who are Charlotte and Wilbur?" she said, sounding somewhat alarmed.

I swallowed a sob. "Charlotte's a spider, and Wilbur's a pig."

That's when she realized I was clutching a book in my hands . . .
Is there anyone in this world that hasn't cried while reading Charlotte's Web? I have to wonder how classroom teachers get through read aloud with it, because I still cry.

In her article From "Black Beauty" to "The Underneath": 132 years of great children's books about animals, Christie Keith talks about the beauty and importance of children's books, particularly those with animals as the characters or focus of the story. Not only does she talk about the value of these books, but Keith has created two annotated lists: classic children's books and books that haven't necessarily earned that status yet.

The Classics are books published until the mid-60s and the Not-quite Classics come after that. The mid-60s were a clear watershed moment in American culture. Themes in children's books changed along with the music, films, and books written for adults, becoming more sophisticated, more about urban settings, more psychological and less overtly sentimental.

. . .

I included suggested reading levels with each description, based on the sometimes conflicting information given by publishers, librarians, and children's book reviewers. These are meant to be suggestions only. I read most of these books when I was quite a bit younger than the given age ranges, and some of them I still enjoy as an adult. Let the reading level of the individual child be your guide.

Here are the lists, without annotations. They are listed in order of publication date.


  • Black Beauty (1877) By Anna Sewell
  • Beautiful Joe (1893) By Margaret Marshall Saunders (writing as Marshall Saunders)
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) By Beatrix Potter
  • The Wind in the Willows (1908) By Kenneth Grahame
  • The Secret Garden (1909) By Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) By Margery Williams
  • National Velvet (1935) By Enid Bagnold
  • Lassie Come-Home (1940) By Eric Knight
  • The Black Stallion (1941) By Walt Farley
  • My Friend Flicka (1941) By Mary O'Hara
  • Gobbolino, the Witch's Cat (1942) By Ursula Moray Williams
  • Big Red (1945) By Jim Kjelgaard
  • Misty of Chincoteague (1947), King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian (1949), Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West (1966) By Marguerite Henry
  • Charlotte's Web (1952) By E.B. White
  • Goodbye, My Lady (1954) By James H. Street
  • Old Yeller (1956) By Fred Gipson
  • My Side of the Mountain (1959) By Jean Craighead George
  • Where the Red Fern Grows (1961) By Wilson Rawls
  • Rascal (1963) By Sterling North

Newer Books (Not Classic YET)

  • J.T. (1969) By Jane Wagner
  • The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (1971) By Judith Viorst
  • Julie of the Wolves (1972) By Jean Craighead George
  • The Harper Hall Trilogy: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums (1979) by Anne McCaffery
  • Babe the Gallant Pig (1983) By Dick King-Smith
  • Dogsong (1985) By Gary Paulsen
  • Rosalie (1987) By Joan Hewett
  • I'll Always Love You (1988) By Hans Wilhelm
  • Two Travelers (1990) By Christopher Manson
  • Shiloh (1991) By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  • Dogteam (1993) By Gary Paulsen and Ruth Wright Paulsen
  • Protecting Marie (1995) By Kevin Henkes
  • The Wolf's Chicken Stew (1996) By Keiko Kasza
  • Olive, the Other Reindeer (1997) By Vivian Walsh
  • Fire, Bed, and Bone (1998) By Henrietta Branford
  • The Grannyman (1999) By Judy Schachner
  • Because of Winn-Dixie (2000) By Kate DiCamillo
  • A Day in the Life of Murphy (2003) By Alice Provensen
  • Breakfast for Jack (2004) By Pat Schories
  • Martha (2005) By Gennady Spirin
  • Nora's Ark (2005) By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
  • The Underneath (2007) By Kathi Appelt

This is not only a very smart article, but the annotations provide some real perspective on the choices. Do take some time to read it. Once you've finished, please come back and comment on the lists. Did you find any surprises? Do you have a real favorite that's missing? Let's chat, shall we?


  1. What about Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmations and Felix Salter's Bambi, Marjorie Rawlings' The Yearling and any number of books by Gerald Durrell? Some of my childhood favorites.

  2. I read The Yearling in middle school, and recall it made me sob almost as much as Charlotte's Web. I would definitely add it to the list.

  3. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (ill. Robert Lawson) is one of my all-time favorites.

  4. What about Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle books? And Solo's Journey, by Joy Smith Aiken, 1987. Kipling's Jungle Books and Just-So Stories.

  5. I would also add Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM and the Beverly Cleary one: Mouse and the Motorcycle.

  6. Also, the Freddy the Detective books. And in the horsey genre, my favorite was Ponies Plot by a somewhat unlikely children's book author, C. Northcote Parkinson.

  7. I cry when I read the death of Charlotte scene out loud in class. Still, after all these years. (In fact, I sometimes don't read it for precisely that reason...)

  8. Oh, yes, I second Dodie Smith's 101 Dalmations and My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. And what about Love that Dog? Almond's Skellig is an interesting possibility, too.