Whether you’re a dog person, a cat person, an anaconda person, or a plain old people person, you can’t not appreciate a human-animal relationship novel. Consider: You don’t have to deal with shedding and you bear no responsibility to feed or walk said animal, but you do get a taste of the intense emotional bond that exists between humans and our furry (…or scaly) friends. The author of the first book on our list once noted: “Animal lovers are a special breed of humans, generous of spirit, full of empathy, perhaps a little prone to sentimentality, and with hearts as big as a cloudless sky.” The same can be said about the animals with which they interact, and as you’ll discover in the following books, these animals can teach us very real lessons about what it means to be human. The dog days of summer are upon us; time to celebrate with some beloved classics.
'Marley & Me' by John Grogan
An alternative title for this list could be “Books that made you cry awkward, embarrassing, sniveling tears when the dog inevitably dies,” and John Grogan’s autobiographical novel fits the bill. Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog details the 13 years Grogan and his family spent with golden retriever Marley, becoming an instant classic upon publication. Marley is unruly, unpredictable, and neurotically terrified of thunderstorms, but has a golden heart to match his furry exterior. As Grogan poignantly writes: “A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.”
'Because of Winn-Dixie' by Kate DiCamillo
Much like Marley, the eponymous dog in Kate DiCamillo’s
Because of Winn-Dixie is first introduced as quite the disciplinary mess. But India Opal Buloni, feeling ostracized from her new town and abandoned by her mother, discovers her new best friend at precisely the right time — for both of them. Opal claims Winn-Dixie as her own after he wreaks havoc in the local supermarket in order to prevent him from being sent to the pound. With Winn-Dixie by her side, Opal is finally able to open up and forge new friendships with the people around her. Winner of the 2001 Newbery Award for excellence in children’s literature, Because of Winn-Dixie is a delightful tale of true friendship and sensitivity.
'War Horse' by Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s classic is perhaps most famous for inspiring Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2011 movie adaptation of the same name. When Joey, a foal on the Narracott family farm, is sold to the British army and shipped off to France during World War I, young Albert literally goes to war for his beloved horse in an effort to bring him home safely. In the book — told from the perspective of the titular horse — Joey pines for his old master while witnessing carnage and destruction, longing for the day when he and Albert will be reunited.
'A Big Little Life' by Dean Koontz
Bestselling author Dean Koontz, famous for his widely-read suspense thrillers, had it made as a novelist. But it wasn’t until he adopted Trixie, an undersized golden retriever and a retired service dog, that his life began to take on meaning. Koontz relates several “typical dog stories” with a creative flair, giving Trixie her own unique, hilarious voice. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll wonder why more of your friends aren’t as fun-loving and entertaining as Dean Koontz’s fluffy companion.
'Charlotte's Web' by E. B. White
Yes, E.B. White’s cherished 1952 novel centers on the friendship between a pig and a spider. But who can forget sweet, impressionable Fern, the girl who originally rescues Wilbur from the slaughterhouse and nurtures him as her own? When Wilbur is eventually separated from Fern and sent to another farm, he is as heartbroken as Fern herself. (The 60th anniversary edition includes a foreword by Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie.)
'Eragon' by Christopher Paolini
Who said that the “animals” in question had to actually exist? Eragon—the first book of the Inheritance Cycle trilogy-turned-tetralogy—flawlessly fits the mold as a novel that is built upon the deep emotional relationship that can exist between humans and non-humans. The bond between the mythical Dragon Riders and their dragons is so intricate that the loss of one’s dragon has driven many a rider mad. When Eragon, a 17-year-old farmboy just waiting for his destiny to fall into his lap, discovers one of the last dragon eggs in Alagaësia, we get to witness the blossoming of this special connection between Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, firsthand.
'Alex & Me' by Irene Pepperberg
Irene Pepperberg abandoned a degree in chemistry in order to pursue the oft-ridiculed field of animal intelligence, befriending an African grey parrot named Alex in the process. Alex would go on to become internationally famous for his unprecedented intelligence, which manifested in his ability to process computations and communicate with humans. In her book, Pepperberg takes us through the depths of Alex’s consciousness, but focuses more heavily on the intense emotional bond she shared with the parrot for more than 30 years.
'Modoc' by Ralph Helfer
Modoc tells the story of “the greatest elephant that ever lived”; a bold title, to be sure. But after poring through Ralph Helfer’s sweeping seven-decade tale of a boy and his elephant, you’d be inclined to agree. Born on the same night in 1896 and dying 72 years later within days of each other, Bram and Modoc become virtually inseparable on their way to circus stardom in New York City. Based on true events with some fictional elements sprinkled in, Helfer’s story is a particularly moving rendition of the human-animal bond in action.
'Dewey' by Vicki Myron
Cats are stereotypically considered to be utterly soulless (at least compared to their canine brethren), but Myron’s tale of an abandoned (and rescued) ginger tabby cat is both heartfelt and enriching. Discovered in the book-return chute of the Spencer, Iowa public library the morning after a frigid winter night, Dewey Readmore Books (get it?) was taken in by Myron, a recently divorced single mother, and immediately became a friendly and comforting staple of the small-town community.