Animal-centric books appeal to all readers great and small
By Tracey Mitchell
Walk into the children’s section of any library or bookstore, and you will see a large proportion of the titles are about animals. This is of course hardly surprising, since kids and animals go together like cats and cream.
Classic children’s literature is full of animal-themed stories. As an animal-obsessed bookworm, I devoured Black Beauty, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Where the Red Fern Grows and The Call of the Wild. And like many other kids, I loved the nonfiction section and the millions of facts I could memorize about creatures.
Children’s literature has changed quite a bit since I was in elementary school. But the prevalence of animal stories has remained constant. Kids still love them, and librarians can’t keep enough of them on the shelves. Here are some suggestions for your animal-loving young reader.
Skippyjon Jones series, by Judy Schachner. The title character is a Siamese cat, but he firmly believes he is a Chihuahua. His imaginary adventures with a posse of other pooches bring hilarious hijinks and endless trouble for his mother and kitten sisters. The illustrations are colorful and fun, and the sprinkling of Spanish words and phrases in the text add local flavor to the stories. These are among my favorite read-aloud books!
Pet, by Matthew Van Fleet; photographs by Brian Stanton. This book has wonderful photos of pets of all types. It also offers interactions for readers, such as fur to touch and flaps to lift. It’s the sort of book that gets read through until it falls apart.
Ladybug Girl and the Rescue Dogs, by David Soman and Jacky Davis. In this book (also part of a series), Ladybug Girl recruits her friends to help at a dog adoption event. Together they learn how to take care of the dogs and even help match families to the right canine companion.
Disgusting Critters series, by Elise Gravel. Some children prefer their animals cute and cuddly. Others like the kind who are, well, disgusting. This series features the kind of critters that many grownups find unpleasant, including The Bat, The Cockroach and The Spider. The author provides interesting facts about the critter and illustrations that are actually cute.
Bad Kitty series, by Nick Bruel. These include picture books, chapter books and a graphic novel. Younger children love the illustrations, and older readers laugh out loud at the predicaments Kitty finds herself in. This is another of my favorite read-aloud series!
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, by Ben Clanton. This easy-reader graphic novel series has a narwhal and a jelly fish as the main characters. The gentle stories about their friendship are a crowd pleaser with both kids and parents.
Ranger in Time series, by Kate Messner. Ranger the golden retriever loves helping people, both in modern day and, through a special device, in other historical times as well. Ranger’s travels include Ancient Rome, Pearl Harbor and the Oregon Trail. This would be an excellent choice for lovers of the Magic Tree House series.
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. This story has quickly become a modern classic and can join the ranks of Black Beauty and Call of the Wild as one of the great animal tales. The story of Ivan the gorilla and his friends is a must-read for animal lovers!
Class Pets series, by Bruce Hale. For something more lighthearted, this series is silly and fun. Fuzzy the guinea pig and his fellow class pets engage in adventures that take them out of the cage or aquarium.
Great Pets!: An Extraordinary Guide to More than 60 Usual and Unusual Family Pets, by Sara Stein. Here the young animal lover in search of a different sort of pet can learn all about acquiring and caring for unusual companions. This would be an excellent resource for finding a pet in a family with allergies.
How to Look After Your Human: A Dog’s Guide, by Maggie Mayhem. Written from the dog’s point of view, this book teaches canines (and their families) how to become a good, happy dog in a human family.
A Curious Collection of Dangerous Creatures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Sami Bayly. Again, some kids are more interested in the less cuddly members of the animal kingdom. For them, this book provides a list of beasts of all kinds that you probably won’t want to keep as a pet, or even try to pet. The author includes facts about each animal, such as where to find them and what they eat. Fact-spouting young readers will love it.
Wags and Words
Besides books about animals, another offering for the young animal enthusiast at Vista Grande Public Library is our Wags and Words program. Participants come in by appointment to read to a therapy dog. Our current canine reading specialist is Latigo, a yellow Lab who is the sweetest, gentlest guy, and has a great love for books.
VGPL has been hosting the Wags and Words program for about eight years. Our therapy dogs and their companions are certified by the Pet Outreach program at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. The dog teams have gone through additional training with the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program.
This has been popular with library patrons of all ages. The dogs are treated like rock stars, with their own fans and paparazzi. But the main focus is to give beginning and reluctant readers an opportunity to practice reading aloud with a sweet, nonjudgmental audience. Many parents whose children participated have praised the program for helping them improve their fluency and their desire to read. Of course, many of our readers just love the idea of reading to a dog! Interested caregivers can sign up for the program with the staff at VGPL.
Even if this option doesn’t work for your family’s schedule, you can achieve many of the same benefits at home, with your own pets. You may have seen news reports on children reading to dogs and cats in shelters. Shelter workers report that this provides socialization for the animals, calming them and giving them positive experiences with humans. These benefits can work with your dog or cat at home, while at the same time helping your child practice reading out loud to an audience who isn’t getting impatient or complaining about how they are reading. The principle would work with other animals as well. Why not read to your goldfish?
Animals and books go together, and not just when the dog decides to eat your book cover! (Ask any librarian how often we see that.) I hope I have inspired you to encourage your young readers to follow their passions for all critters, in their book choices and their reading partners.
Tracey Mitchell is the library assistant at Vista Grande Public Library in Eldorado.