The best books about chimpanzees

2 authors have picked their favorite books about chimpanzees and why they recommend each book.

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Mama's Last Hug

By Frans de Waal,

Book cover of Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

The renowned primatologist sums up his views, which I share, about how similar to us are the great apes. The book begins with a story that nobody who reads it will ever forget. I will not spoil it for you, but read the first few pages and see if you come away with dry eyes.

Frans de Waal is rightly considered the world expert on primates. And reading this book will show you why and what he has learned. Actually, it’s not that hard to summarize: they are very similar to us. But if that is so, what are the implications? Here I think the author could have gone further. Because one thing I believe is undeniable: if they really are like us, what gives us the right to put them in zoos, or really in any kind of confinement, no matter how much we learn from doing so? I…

Who am I?

I was once a psychoanalyst, but I found that it was almost impossible to understand another human being. Animals were easier: they could not be hypocritical, they could not lie, they could not deceive. Whoever heard of an animal with an unconscious anger problem? If they were angry they showed it, if they loved they showed it. After I got fired from the Freud Archives (that’s a whole other story) I decided I wanted to read ten good books about animal emotions. This was in 1981. But it turns out there were no books on this topic I could read, except Darwin, 1872! So I decided to write my own. 

I wrote...

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals

By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,

Book cover of The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals

What is my book about?

Possibly the first book written about the emotional lives of animals on farms: pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, goats, ducks, and others. Convinced these animals feel much the same emotions we do, the author realized he could no longer eat eggs or any dairy product, let alone meat. He felt he had no choice but to become vegan.   

Mr. Nobody's Eyes

By Michael Morpurgo,

Book cover of Mr. Nobody's Eyes

I’m a sucker for anything about chimps!

Set in post-war England, this charming story focuses on the relationship between 10-year-old Henry and Ocky, a mischievous chimpanzee he ‘accidentally’ steals from Mr Nobody at Blondini’s Circus.

After trouble at school and at home, and with the threat of having his secret friend discovered, Harry runs away with Ocky. Following a series of adventures, ending with a perilous situation at the seaside, Harry realises that not only is Ocky precious to Mr Nobody, but he is precious to his family too.

Who am I?

I remember reading Enid Blyton’s Mr. Galliano’s Circus as a child and was fascinated more by the idea of circus life than the actual performance aspect. I still adore watching high-quality circus feats performed by acrobats and love that frisson of excitement as everyone shuffles into their seats just before showtime. When I began writing children’s books, my aim was to give the child characters room to develop resilience and courage while encountering danger and adventure without the presence of adults. In order to do this, I had to somehow remove parental figures. Running away is the perfect literary device to achieve this which is how Glass Dreams came about.

I wrote...

Glass Dreams

By Helen Laycock,

Book cover of Glass Dreams

What is my book about?

Glass Dreams is a circus mystery where all is not as it seems…Jake’s life suddenly unravels when his grandma dies. His foster carers are wonderful, but this is only a temporary arrangement. When he is then placed in an orphanage where everyone seems to hate him, running away seems to be the only option… 

He finds shelter in the middle of the night in the form of an old caravan in the woods,  and it’s there he meets Khala, an acrobat from the travelling circus, who persuades him to join her. Running away to the circus seems so exciting, until he realises the danger he has got himself into, but the discovery he makes at the end is utterly unimaginable and worth every ounce of peril.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Book cover of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Okay, this is a little bit of a cheat, as there’s no magical realism exactly in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, but there’s certainly the uncanny. This story of two sisters separated during childhood trying to find each other in adulthood is wry and funny, but also immensely heartfelt and dramatic, and the twist at the halfway mark (which I won’t spoil for you!) makes this one a personal favourite. 

Who am I?

Growing up in the sub-tropics of Brisbane, there was a magic in the heat. It was one that spoke to me from a really young age, and I’d daydream about finding portals to secret worlds in the stutter of a sprinkler’s spray, or the ooze of a monster in mid-afternoon sweat. There was no way I couldn’t find a story in the oppressive swelter of year-round summers, and in my head, I’d cast roles for my family and my friends. Over the years, that bred into a love of writing and reading stories about strange families finding their own sorts of magic with each other and their environments, and the ways that little taste of the uncanny can reveal and conceal in equal measure. 

I wrote...

The Rabbits

By Sophie Overett,

Book cover of The Rabbits

What is my book about?

Crippled by grief since the disappearance of her older sister, Bo, Delia and her mother became dysfunctional, parting ways not long after Delia turned eighteen. Now an art teacher at a Queensland college, Delia has managed to build a new life for herself and to create a family of her own. Only more and more that life is slipping: her partner, Ed, has gone, her daughter, Olive, is distancing herself, and all of a sudden, in the middle of a blinding heatwave, her sixteen-year-old son, Charlie, disappears too. 

The Rabbits is a multigenerational family story with a dose of magical realism. It is about family secrets, art, very mild superpowers, loneliness, and the strange connections we make in the places we least expect. 

In the Shadow of Man

By Jane Goodall,

Book cover of In the Shadow of Man

I must admit, I am in awe of Dr. Jane Goodall, who travelled deep into the jungle of Tanzania at the unfazed age of 26 (accompanied by her mum) to see what she could learn from chimpanzees. Her research undermined scientific thought as she watched chimps using tools and lived through a four-year primate war. I loved the way I learnt to differentiate and empathise with individual animals in this book. I introduced individual sun bears in my own book with the aim to bridge the species divide in the same way. After all, as Jane herself says, "Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help."

Who am I?

My parents took my brother and me out of school on April Fool’s Day 1979 (when I was 13). We spent the next eight years sailing from the UK to the Americas. Our ‘boat-schooling’ was informed by the world around us: trying to plot our position with sextant taught me mathematics; squinting at a scooped bucket of seaweed taught me about biodiversity; hunkering down in horrendous storms made me realise my insignificance; and finding a way to communicate in local markets took away my fear of difference. April 1st is my most significant anniversary. I'm indebted to my courageous parents for helping me understand I'm a small part of of an incredible planet.

I wrote...

Saving Sun Bears: One man's quest to save a species

By Sarah R. Pye,

Book cover of Saving Sun Bears: One man's quest to save a species

What is my book about?

When I met Malaysian ecologist Dr. Wong, I asked what she could do to help him save the Bornean rainforest. He replied, “do what you do best.” Those five powerful words sparked a Doctor of Creative Arts degree, an enduring friendship, and his award-winning biography, Saving Sun Bears

In this inspirational story, ‘papa bear’ (as he is known), tries to save the ‘forgotten bear’ from extinction. It’s a journey of leaky gum boots, remote helicopter expeditions, incense-smoked Buddhist temples, heart-pumping rejection letters, and momentous goodbyes. Wong’s quest takes him around the world, and in 2017 he is named a CNN Wildlife Hero - proving one person can make a difference.

Grumpy Monkey

By Suzanne Lang, Max Lang (illustrator),

Book cover of Grumpy Monkey

One wonderful day, Jim Panzee wakes up grumpy. Although he denies it, and despite the other animals’ attempts to cheer him up, Jim remains grumpy until the end. This book is a rollicking reminder that we all have emotions, and that’s okay. It affirms that we, as humans, (or monkeys, as it were,) are entitled to our own feelings. The book ends with a hopeful blossoming of a new friendship. Children will love the lively illustrations. It’s a fun read that sends an important message with a dash of subtlety and big helping of humor.

Who am I?

I have always been an artist and avid reader, but my passion for picture books began while reading them with my children. That passion grew into a career as an author/illustrator. For me, the best picture books speak honestly and with integrity. They affirm children’s feelings and help them deal with those feelings. Children are incredibly perceptive and unflinchingly honest. All of my picture books are different, but honest emotions are at their core. After I lost my husband—and my children lost their father—I experienced firsthand how strong and emotionally complex children are. I believe the books on my list effectively and honestly address children’s feelings, and are wonderful resources for caregivers.

I wrote...

Little Grump Truck

By Amanda Driscoll,

Book cover of Little Grump Truck

What is my book about?

When Little Dump Truck is in a good mood, she's the happiest member of her construction crew. But when things don't go her way, she becomes Little Grump Truck. This bright, playful book shows kids that meditation and mindfulness can banish even the most serious case of the grumpies. 

"Should appeal to all the little grump trucks hauling their feelings about." – Kirkus Reviews

Brazzaville Beach

By William Boyd,

Book cover of Brazzaville Beach

The compromising of science in close-up, claustrophobic microcosm as determination to preserve reputation, funding, and status battles emerging, inconvenient, horrifying truth. I was gripped by the power struggle between the guru-like head of a chimpanzee research centre and a young uncompromising researcher observing chimp behaviour which does not fit the accepted narrative. It's incredibly specific and also at the same time incarnates something absolutely universal. I will never forget it – it got right into my head and stuck.

Who am I?

I used to be part of the establishment, working in Whitehall for the UK government. Then I became the ultimate outsider, with light sensitivity so extreme that many people dismissed it as “all in my head.” Years on, turns out I've had a physical illness all along – but one only recently recognised. Now I know what I’m dealing with (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome), I’m much better.  My journey’s made me fascinated by the way establishments of all kinds – corporate, political, scientific – react to new uncomfortable truths, and how often they’ll opt for gaslighting and "psychological" labels to keep those truths at bay.  

I wrote...

Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light

By Anna Lyndsey,

Book cover of Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light

What is my book about?

I was in my early thirties when my skin gradually became excruciatingly sensitive to light. The condition grew so extreme that I had to spend most of my time in a totally blacked-out room. I tried everything to get out of the dark: doctor after doctor, hypnotherapy, weird diets, internet pills. Lying in darkness, my skin on fire, I often planned my suicide.

My book is about how - somehow - I survived. The love and humour of my partner and my family. The talking books which took me to different worlds. And, during brief periods of improvement when I could venture out (like Dracula) at dusk and dawn, the overwhelming, breathtaking beauty of our own.

A Beautiful Truth

By Colin McAdam,

Book cover of A Beautiful Truth

A childless couple adopts a chimpanzee named Looee, and you already know from reading that sentence that it will lead to trouble and heartbreak. After a few pages, I didn’t care. In McAdam’s skilled hands, the inevitable sadness doesn’t matter, because the delicately handled point of view perfectly captures a doomed creature trapped between two opposing identities. In contrast, we also meet Podo, an alpha chimp at a research facility seeking to test the intelligence of primates. Podo is fully ape, but he is turning into something more. Their paths soon join, taking them deeper into a gray area between human and animal that I had never seen rendered on the page so vividly before. 

Who am I?

In addition to writing novels, I’m a humanities editor for Oxford University Press. So, I’m interested in the political and theological implications of non-human intelligence. I wonder how people would react to such a revelation. Some would be fascinated by this radical new perspective. Others would be horrified at what they perceive as a transgression against nature. I’m also drawn to this topic because I still vividly recall the entertainment of my youth, which regularly featured anthropomorphic animals. Sometimes they’re just cool or funny. But on occasion—like with The Secret of NIMH—they raise profound questions of identity and rebellion, even for an audience that is too young to understand.

I wrote...


By Robert Repino,

Book cover of Morte

What is my book about?

The “war with no name” has begun. The instigator is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who have raised an army that will wipe out the humans and build a new utopia. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.

Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions. But his true motivation is his search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will lead to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the ultimate fate of all the earth's creatures.

Basketry and Beyond

By T.A. Heslop (editor), Helen Anderson (editor),

Book cover of Basketry and Beyond: Constructing Cultures

If you’re interested in the origins of creative thought, this is the book for you. Baskets are key, it turns out, in the connections now made between humans and the tool- and nest-making birds and chimpanzees. Containing, yes, but holding so much more than “stuff”, baskets from around the world are holders of pattern recognition, histories, and even wisdom.

Who am I?

It seems I was destined to write about textiles. Long after I started documenting the tapestries of the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh—over 45 years ago—I discovered that my great-grandfather was a cotton mule-spinner, working one of those machines that spurred on the industrial revolution. So it’s in my blood. I’ve interviewed dozens of people who’ve made similar discoveries, and have become a firm believer in the long-lasting inherited significance of textiles. We’ve made them and they in turn have made us who we are. Now more than ever, my hope is to entangle people into the wonderful web that connects every era and every culture.

I wrote...

World Textiles

By Mary Schoeser,

Book cover of World Textiles

What is my book about?

The history of textiles, more than that of any other artifact, is a history of human ingenuity. From the very earliest needles of 50,000 years ago to the smart textiles of today, textiles have been fundamental to human existence. Long a motivation for trade, the exchange of ideas and sometimes even war, textiles are a vast and fascinating subject for creatives, designers, textile and fashion professionals, collectors, students, and anyone interested in this history of humankind. I’ve explored how textiles are made, what they are made from, how they function in society, and the ways in which they are valued and given meaning, as well as reflecting on the environmental challenges they present today. Over 200 colour illustrations bring this global story to life.

Chimpanzee Politics

By Franz DeWaal,

Book cover of Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

This is a highly readable and fun book published back in 1982 by one of the leading primatologists of our era. A close student of ape behavior, Frans de Waal shows how smart apes are and what we can learn about ourselves by studying their behavior. He demonstrates that, contrary to common belief, it is not by physical strength alone that an alpha ape hangs onto its power at the top of the social pyramid. More important than their muscles is their ability to form coalitions with others.  

If your mental image of an alpha ape is a brawny male, forget it. De Waal profiles one female ape, Mama, who manages for years to dominate a group by exercising power more prudently than her male rivals, who shriek and throw tantrums when they don't get their way. This is the good news. The bad news is that apes are Machiavellian.…

Who am I?

Rick Shenkman is a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and journalist who, after reading and writing history books for 40 years, decided to spend the past decade discovering what social scientists have to say. To his great joy, he learned that since he had last studied their work in college they had come to a vast new understanding of human political behavior. He now uses their insights into political psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and genetics to help explain our fucked up politics.

I wrote...

Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

By Rick Shenkman,

Book cover of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics

What is my book about?

My book begins with a question: Why are we so bad at politics? The answer turns out to be that we evolved to thrive in a world vastly different from the one in which we find ourselves. Our gut instincts, designed to help us cope with a community of about 150 people, fail us repeatedly and nearly completely when facing the challenges of a society composed of millions. This is why we elect morons, are taken in by nonsense, and are susceptible to conspiracy thinking.

I wrote my book before Donald Trump was elected. But a Washington Post reviewer wrote that my book explained Trump's election better than others that focused on Trump. We don't have a Donald Trump problem. We have a human being problem.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

By Frans de Waal,

Book cover of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Frans de Waal is one of the leading researchers on intelligence in non-human animals and this book provides fascinating stories of ways in which chimpanzees and other species exhibit sophisticated kinds of problem-solving and learning. It is well complemented by his subsequent book on animal emotions: Mama’s Last Hug. You will learn that animals are a lot smarter than you thought. 

Who am I?

I became fascinated by the highest achievements of human intelligence while a graduate student in philosophy working on the discovery and justification of scientific theories. Shortly after I got my PhD, I started working with cognitive psychologists who gave me an appreciation for empirical studies of intelligent thinking. Psychology led me to computational modeling of intelligence and I learned to build my own models. Much later a graduate student got me interested in questions about intelligence in non-human animals. After teaching a course on intelligence in machines, humans, and other animals, I decided to write a book that provides a systematic comparison: Bots and Beasts.  

I wrote...

Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

By Paul Thagard,

Book cover of Bots and Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?

What is my book about?

Octopuses can open jars to get food, and chimpanzees can plan for the future. An IBM computer named Watson won on Jeopardy! and Alexa knows our favorite songs. But do animals and smart machines really have intelligence comparable to that of humans? In Bots and Beasts, Paul Thagard looks at how computers (“bots”) and animals measure up to the minds of people, offering the first systematic comparison of intelligence across machines, animals, and humans. 

Thagard explains that human intelligence is more than IQ and encompasses such features as problem-solving, decision making, and creativity. He uses a checklist of twenty characteristics of human intelligence to evaluate the smartest machines—including Watson, AlphaZero, virtual assistants, and self-driving cars—and the most intelligent animals—including octopuses, dogs, dolphins, bees, and chimpanzees.

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