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Books for Adults Featuring Animal Protagonists

Animals in books aren't just for kids

Animals are often fluffy, adorable characters that are great for children’s books, like the adorable zoo creatures from Peggy Rathmann’s Good Night, Gorilla. Anthropomorphic animals as protagonists can also provide authors with a creative means to send a message. Take George Orwell’s famous Animal Farm, a highly political story entirely set on a farm where the exploitation of animals is an allegory for governmental exploitation of humans. While adult novels featuring animals in a predominant role are harder to come by than in children’s books, nonhuman characters provide depth and emotional insight, and give us highly entertaining reads. This list is composed of great, creative tales seen through the eyes of our animal friends. 

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most well-known books of the 20th century. He claimed that the inspiration for this metaphoric tale came when he, “…saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.” This novel is an excellent example of how authors can use non-humans to express human realities. 

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Despite the use of distinctly cute bunnies and rabbits as the protagonists and villains in Watership Down, this novel is by no means meant for children. It is a courageous tale of a small group of rabbits searching for a home after humans have unknowingly destroyed much of the animal’s environment. The overly optimistic rabbits must protect their land and their community, facing ignorantly destructive humans and bloody battles with other animals. Like Animal Farm, Adam’s novel sends a blatant message about the ills of human society.   

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

Maus is an innovative take on recounting the atrocities faced by a survivor of the Holocaust and its lasting impact on the human psyche. In this non-fiction graphic novel, Spiegelman tactically imagines different races, religions, and ethnicity as distinct animals. Jews are mice while Germans are cats and Europe is a huge mouse trap, all decidedly palpable metaphors. His experimental approach in making a historic, biographical, and autobiographical novel is enthralling and especially informative about what it meant to be Jewish and what it means to be Jewish, years after the Holocaust. The story is split into two parts (see Maus II). 

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Made up of a collection of animal-themed stories, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a humorous, at times disturbing, look at relationships and emotions, and how ridiculous each can be. Whether the story is about the “Grieving Owl” or “The Vigilant Rabbit,” readers will find the characters to be remarkably relatable. In a very Sedaris fashion, this book is dark and insightful; each tale is an amusing read. 

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain is for any lover of human’s best friend, but be prepared to hold back tears. Stein goes into the mind of an intelligent dog, who feels and sees a lot. Enzo, the protagonist and family pet, is an important member of his human caretaker’s lives, analyzing and experiencing their struggles. His brave loyalty is truly touching and will make you want to ruffle the fur of the closest dog. Stein’s visceral novel is a must read. 

Wish You Were Here by Rita Mae Brown

The protagonist of Wish You Were Here is less known for its loyalty to humans and more for its mischievous ways, which is fitting for this murder-mystery. However, Mrs. Murphy, a house cat, is loyal to her recently divorced, sad owner who is on a mission to find out who is murdering members of her Virginia community.  With wit and hilarity, that includes philosophical conversations between a dog and a cat, Brown insinuates that our pets are more astute than their human friends, but they are still there for us. This book, written in collaboration with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, is part of the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series.    

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley

Paradoxically named, Horse Heaven takes place on a horse racetrack where jockeys and trainers are under constant pressure, especially by detached ultra-rich bidders. Written from a horse’s perspective, this novel presents astonishing truths about the world of horse racing, whether it be joy or pain, with excellent character development of both human and horse.  At just under 1,000 pages, Horse Heaven is an ambitious, yet rewarding, read.

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