The best children’s books about animals who become true blue friends

Emily Butler Author Of Otto P. Nudd
By Emily Butler

The Books I Picked & Why

Charlotte's Web

By E.B. White

Book cover of Charlotte's Web

Why this book?

Charlotte’s Web is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. No line is wasted; every word is necessary. Almost all human emotions are on display in this story—fear! greed! altruism! young love! pride! Templeton (the gluttonous rat) was my first encounter with an anti-hero. Could he really, in the end, help save Wilbur’s life? As a six-year-old, I struggled to understand how such a thing might be possible. And Charlotte’s Web was my first encounter (albeit literary) with death. I felt terrible grief at the end of the story and know how important it is to let children process “big” emotions this way. I’d be happy to be buried with a copy of this book.

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Where the Red Fern Grows

By Wilson Rawls

Book cover of Where the Red Fern Grows

Why this book?

I made the mistake of reading Where the Red Fern Grows in class during “quiet time” and had to crouch under a table so that nobody could see me cry. I cried so hard that my teacher eventually sent me out to the drinking fountain to pull myself together. I knew nothing about the Ozarks or the complexities of raccoon hunting, but I identified greatly with Billy, a boy who wanted puppies so much that he saved every dime for two years to pay for them. To this day I look for red ferns, which, according to the story, can only be planted by an angel! I’m recommending this book because it hits the reader squarely in his or her feelings, and that’s valuable.

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The Mouse and the Motorcycle

By Beverly Cleary

Book cover of The Mouse and the Motorcycle

Why this book?

This book completely captured my imagination when my teacher, in a very successful bid to corral a large class of third-graders, read it aloud to us after recess. So I’m recommending it as a riveting read-aloud. There was no question in my mind, at least while my teacher was reading to us, that a mouse might dream of riding a motorcycle. Nor was I skeptical that the boy who owned the motorcycle would befriend that mouse, and that they would have a falling out, and ultimately be reconciled, as friends often are. No, it all seemed very plausible to me. Beverly Cleary’s genius for setting up stories that draw children all the way in is on full display in The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

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Amos & Boris

By William Steig

Book cover of Amos & Boris

Why this book?

Of course fate could bring a whale and a mouse together, their bond of friendship lasting for the rest of their lives! In his matter-of-fact yet sparkling and stylish way, William Steig always made the fantastical seem unremarkable. I have given this book to at least five friends. Its quirky and gorgeous illustrations (by Steig, who was also a brilliant cartoonist) are as vital to the story as the words. Amos & Boris is just one of those books that does not condescend to young readers and is therefore as appealing to adults as children. I recommend it because Steig understood that kids can handle the deepest of deep life-and-death stories, and if those stories happen to feature animals, well...all the better!

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Beloved Dog

By Maira Kalman

Book cover of Beloved Dog

Why this book?

I recommend this book in part for its sheer weirdness and in part because dogs have evolved to be our true blue friends, and Beloved Dog celebrates that fact as much as any book I’ve ever read. Kalman’s writing is often a stream of consciousness, so the reader needs to leave any expectation of linear story-telling aside and just enjoy the ride. Kids are great at doing that! They can turn each page and lose themselves in her illustrations. Once again, I adore a book that isn’t exclusively for children or adults, but both.

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