There’s just something about a children’s book with an animal front and center. For many young readers, these quirky, lovable, animal characters become fundamental parts of our childhood imagination and for good reason! It’s certainly a literary motif I’ve enjoyed or I wouldn’t have had a first book like the Fantastic Adventures of Captain Acorn. And I’m certainly not alone in creating animal main characters. There are so many stellar books with animal heroes, but here’s my pick of the best five.
1. Paddington Bear, Michael Bond
The Paddington Bear books are some of the sweetest and most charming pieces of children’s fiction. While many may be familiar with this bear’s antics on the screen, his first appearance was in book form in 1958 from the imagination of Michael Bond.
As the story goes, Paddington is a young bear found by the Brown family at Paddington station, which ultimately gives him his name. From then on, there’s never a dull moment for the Brown family and their loving but cantankerous housekeeper Mrs. Bird. Adventures of the most ridiculous and comical variety seem to follow Paddington everywhere. He’s never more than a few pawsteps away from a troublesome disaster. Whether it’s accidental concert appearances, haywire wallpaper jobs, or even the odd run-in with the conniving, bitter neighbor Mr. Curry, this marmalade-loving bear is going to find trouble. But as apt as Paddington is to get in trouble, he always finds the oddest and most miraculous ways back out of it again.
This is the sort of book that appeals to readers who just want to escape into a charming and delightful read. Paddington’s misadventures aren’t relatable so much as hilariously entertaining and any reader will find themselves shaking their head at the Peruvian bear's well-intended mishaps and wondering what he will do next.
2. Redwall, Brian Jacques
In a completely different vein from our friend Paddington lies the Redwall series. Brian Jacques took the motif of animal main characters and dropped them into a full fantasy medieval drama and pulled it off flawlessly.
In the eponymous first book of the series, we meet Mattias the mouse, living in the Redwall Abbey. Our hero tries to dutifully complete his work, but he dreams of greater adventures beyond his simple life. As fate would have it, adventure comes to him in the form of the terrifying Cluny the Scourge, a mercenary rat with an army bent on destruction. In the Abbey’s hour of desperation, Matthias becomes the hope for them all, but only if he finds an ancient sword in time.
This book gives children an adventure filled with hope, cunning, faith, and perseverance all to the backdrop of a full-scale medieval siege. The residents of the abbey band together against the evil rats and low lifes of the attacking force and the result is a timeless and classic struggle of good versus evil that has a universal understanding amongst young readers.
3. War Horse, Michael Morpurgo
Often known for its movie (and, in my family, the little cupped hand bird call), War Horse was originally a children's book. It may seem like the horrors and devastation of the first world war might be a little weighty for a kid’s read, but the subject material is deftly handled and eloquently delivered.
The entirety of the book is narrated by the eponymous horse, Joey. It opens with his separation from his mother and introduction to his boy, Albert, whom Joey forges a deep and trusting bond with. The two are separated at the outbreak of war when Albert’s father needs money to keep the farm going. What follows is Joey’s extraordinary journey through the brutal warfare of the Western front and the extraordinarily human people who simply want to survive.
As I said, despite its weighty subject material, War Horse is a wonderful book for young readers. While it covers the entirety of the harsh and heartbreaking first world war, it does so from Joey’s perspective which lessens the brutality of the scenes. The horse is markedly innocent in what he sees and that reads clearly even as he witnesses the war. He sees it all, but his thoughts are not dragged down to unmanageable depths that a young reader can’t follow. In doing so, Morpurgo tackles a huge topic with grace and gravitas that makes his book a must-read.
4. Bunnicula, James and Deborah Howe
In a complete 180 from the gravitas of War Horse, Bunnicula is absolutely ridiculous in all the best ways possible. The first in a series of hilarious mysteries, Bunnicula has an energy that makes it nearly a Young Frankenstein for kids.
The story is narrated by Harold, the Monroe family dog, and opens on the night when the family comes home with an unexpected surprise: a strange little bunny with equally strange habits. Harold seems fine with the new addition, but trouble brews as Chester, the family cat, is highly suspicious of the mysterious little rabbit. What unfolds is a hilarious battle between mystery and suspicion as Chester and Harold butt heads over the fate of their new housemate.
This book is just fun. Full stop. If you want just a fun, hilarious mystery that borders on the ludicrous, this is the book for you. I laughed when I read it as a kid, and I’ve laughed rereading it as an adult. Between Harold’s methodical, practical narration, and Chester’s out of control paranoia that borders on mania, Bunnicula offers a chuckle with every turn of the page for a reader at any age. After all, the best books are the ones that manage to age with you.
5. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
You can’t have a list of leading animal characters and not include the famous and universally known Winnie the Pooh. The eponymous bear is the well-known character of many Disney films but his start came from the mind of A.A. Milne and his charming books following the bear of little brain.
The story opens with the universally known Christopher Robin asking his author father for a story about him and his bear in which his father indulges him. What follows is a cheerful and charming romp into imagination and the sweet nature of childhood. Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and all their friends always encounter
The story is sweet and unhurried. Winnie the Pooh rambles through his adventures with thoughtful, meandering, good intentions, and while his mind may wander his heart never does. Winnie the Pooh is a lovely read for any child.