Thursday, April 14, 2016

Some Great Animal Books

For some reason people seem to link animal books to children's books. And, yes, there are many great animal books written for children and young adults. I know, because I grew up reading many such novels and short stories. In fact, I cut my reader's teeth on books and tales about animals.

Such books influence many of us in the long run. It enables us to look with compassion and even equality with the fellow creatures with whom we share the globe. This was the effect such prose had on me as I was growing older and learning to think. Humans are worthless without compassion, and a lack of compassion for other species marks us as unworthy, in my estimation.

So, then, following is a brief list of the best of the animal books that influenced me in one way or another over the course of my reading life. Some of these books I read as a child, some as a young adult, and some as a grown man. There's no real reason to the list except that each of these books has had a profound effect upon the way I think.

I will say here that I will only mention Hugh Lofting and will not actually include his Dr. Doolittle books on the list (except by this mention). I did enjoy them as an eight-year-old child, but I saw them as mere fantasy and I quickly overdosed on the more treacly aspects of the fiction. But, yes, they obviously had an impact.


BIG RED by Jim Kjelgaard.

BIG RED was written by Jim Kjelgaard who is largely forgotten these days. This is a sad turn of events considering how influential his work was to a generation of children and young adults. Some of his novels are still in print today, mainly a few of the books about dogs. But he wrote many animals novels and even ventured outside his comfort zone from time to time. His book FIRE HUNTER was later purloined in grand fashion as the basis for a series of best-selling novels, sans credits.

Today, when he is mentioned at all, it is mainly for his book BIG RED. It was a tremendous best seller in its day and was purchased for film and produced as a movie by Walt Disney. You can still grab it in paperback format. As a young adult novel, high recommended.


THOR by Wayne Smith.

Another, stranger novel is THOR by Wayne Smith. This is a completely different kind of novel that bends the fabric of fiction. To me, it remains the single finest animal-point-of-view novel I have ever read. Add to this the fact that it is written for adults, and it doubles as a horror novel set firmly within the world of dark fantasy and you have a truly unique book. How many dog books introduce a werewolf into the mix?

The title character is Thor, the German shepherd dog owned by the human family with whom he lives. The reader sees the world from the eyes and senses of Thor. It is a phenomenally good book that had the misfortune of hitting the horror book market just as the horror scene in the world of mass market paperbacks was collapsing. It never really saw the audience that it so richly deserves. But it was recognized for its unique take and was optioned for film and made into a truly terrible movie that ignored everything about the book that made it worthwhile. (The less about that unfortunate occurrence, the better.) You should do yourself a favor and buy a copy of THOR.


WILD ANIMALS I HAVE KNOWN by Ernest Thompson Seton.

I could list a dozen novels here by Ernest Thompson Seton and all of them would serve well to illustrate the power of his work. Again, we deal here with a man whose work was once amazingly popular and influential to at least two generations of American readers. To me, the shadow that has fallen over his memory is about as sad a commentary on popular literature as any I could name.

Seton was a true polymath. An illustrator, a painter, a journalist, an outdoorsman, a historian, and a writer of fiction. Probably his most famous book remains WILD ANIMALS I HAVE KNOWN. It's a collection of short stories that feature tales of various species of animals. As I have mentioned in previous essays, even Seton's title makes it stand apart from all other animal tales that came before it. We see here that he has placed animals as persons and not as objects. These are characters whom he has known. Not watched, or observed, but known.

And all of those personalities stand out in each story. These are animals who make decisions and who journey and adventure and play and think and feel! On one level Seton's work turned millions of kids into enthusiasts of science and nature, and in many cases it turned those same kids into lovers of wildlife. Without Seton, where might we have otherwise stood?


As near as I can tell, this book is out of print. A pity.
The novel MONARCH OF DEADMAN BAY is at the very top of my list of favorite animal books. It doesn't hurt that my personal totem animal is the Alaskan brown bear. And the protagonist of this novel is a particular beast we come to know as the king of Deadman Bay where he rules the land.

A unique aspect of the novel is that there are pretty much no human characters in the novel. Yes, there are humans who appear from time to time, but they are only there as set pieces, fragments of the environment though which the Monarch strides, avoiding at all cost. We both sympathize with Monarch and empathize with him and are left to cheer him on as he lives and makes his choices in this dab of wilderness in a world that is inimical within and without. Even a beast who weighs close to a ton has to tread with great care.

Again, this is a novel that is largely forgotten these days, and sadly so. As I said, it is easily the finest animal book I ever ever encountered. Find a copy. Read it. You will not be sorry.


dogboy443 said...

And then there is this zombie/dog novel by that Smith guy that's excellent and should be optioned quickly to catch the zombie-craze.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks, Mark!

Yeah, another movie option would be cool.