15 Books About Animals to Inform and Inspire

Books about animals
If you love reading books about animals, you're not the only one! Animals can evoke a sense of both the familiar and the otherworldly. As children, many of us read books featuring cute anthropomorphic cats, dogs, rabbits, bears, birds and other furry or feathered friends living through relatable circumstances. Many of us also read books full of fascinating facts about wildlife, or about extinct creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. In adulthood, we can continue using reading to celebrate our connections with animals as well as to explore the details of how they exist in the world.

Below are recommended books from recent years, both fiction and nonfiction, to bring you a little closer to all the other beings with whom we share the planet. Some of them inhabit an animal point of view, while others consider how much people may be able to learn from living alongside animals. These also make great choices for book clubs.

For many more recommendations, we invite you to explore our Books About Animals category.

Life Between the Tides

Life Between the Tides
by Adam Nicolson

Paperback Feb 2023. 384 pages
Published by Picador

Life Between the Tides is one of those rare books that is truly interdisciplinary, transcending genres to effortlessly reveal the wondrous underlying nature of the mundane and overlooked. In doing so, Adam Nicolson unlocks and shares profound truths about the meaning of life. The book initially appears to be a simple naturalist exploration of the biology within tidal pools — small ponds of seawater surrounded by rock or sand created when the tide retreats. Nicholson observes the drama as the organisms fight with one another, and in quieter moments, contemplates prawns, winkles and crabs for long stretches at a time. While drawing us into these complex, interrelated worlds and lives, he shares philosophies about pursuing the meaning of life through love, virtue and care. (Jennifer Hon Khalaf)

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How Far the Light Reaches

How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
by Sabrina Imbler

Hardcover Dec 2022. 272 pages
Published by Little Brown & Company

In their debut essay collection, science and conservation journalist Sabrina Imbler takes readers on a tour through the ocean's briny depths to meet little-known sea creatures with fascinating lives and capabilities. Throughout, Imbler creates strikingly rendered parallels to their own experience as a queer, mixed race, nonbinary science writer. An essay called "We Swarm" is an ode to queer locations and events in New York City, including the annual Pride parade and accompanying Dyke March ("which any of us will remind you is a protest, not a parade"), as well as a stretch of Jacob Riis Beach in Queens that is a popular party spot and hallowed part of LGBTQ+ history. In one of the strongest pieces, "Hybrids," Imbler addresses the theme of community again, interrogating language to consider how white supremacy invades and infects self-expression for people of color. They conclude astutely that "Maybe complaining to someone who gets it is one of the purest comforts on Earth." (Lisa Butts)

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Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains
by Bethany Brookshire

Paperback Dec 5, 2023. 352 pages
Published by Ecco

Like any good science journalist, Bethany Brookshire excels at making observations and asking questions. So when a squirrel (whom she dubs F***ing Kevin) starts to decimate her vegetable garden, Brookshire doesn't let his frustrating behavior drive her crazy—instead she asks herself a question: at what point are squirrels considered cute and fluffy mascots ("rats with good PR," as a friend of mine once called them), and at what point do they cross the line and become reclassified as pests? It's worth noting that Brookshire focuses her book on vertebrates, since they prove much more polarizing than, say, mosquitoes or lice. She starts off with some high-profile pests—rats and snakes—whose very presence is likely to prompt not only loathing but also fear. But, she points out, even those reactions are learned, culturally specific, and, in many cases, revealing of human shortcomings. (Norah Piehl)

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Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses
by Jackie Higgins

Paperback Nov 2022. 320 pages
Published by Atria Books

Over the course of the book, Higgins introduces readers to a menagerie of creatures—from peacock mantis shrimps and octopuses to orbweaver spiders, cheetahs and duck-billed platypuses—to illustrate the ingenuous sensory mechanisms our animal kin have evolved in adaptation to the world around them. In each case, these examples serve as a springboard for discussing parallels in the sphere of human perception, showing that our senses are both more powerful and more varied than we may commonly assume. (Elisabeth Herschbach)

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What We Fed to the Manticore

What We Fed to the Manticore
by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri

Paperback Sep 2022. 200 pages
Published by Tin House Books

From a polar bear hunting in the barren Arctic to a hound in Africa guarding rhinos from poachers, Talia Lakshmi Kolluri brings readers inside the minds of the creatures with whom we share our world. Her poignant collection of short stories, What We Fed to the Manticore, spans both species and the globe. Perhaps the most compelling part of these stories is how the author has developed the worldviews of the various characters. She brings a feeling not just of their reaction to the current moment, but also of how their species and lives have shaped their understanding of events. Each of the animals has a distinct sense of history and culture. The creation myth of polar bears, the romances of whales and the social customs of sled dogs are all vibrantly brought to life. (Katharine Blatchford)

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Bitch: On the Female of the Species
by Lucy Cooke

Paperback Oct 17, 2023. 400 pages
Published by Basic Books

In middle school biology class, many of us were told that men hunt and women nest, that testosterone-driven males dominate in the animal kingdom, and that females are naturally disposed to motherhood and nurturing their helpless offspring. The problem is that these shibboleths aren't backed up by unwavering scientific evidence, as Lucy Cooke eloquently and enjoyably explains in Bitch: On the Female of the Species. Not only is Bitch enlightening, but it's also entertaining. Told with verve, humor and plain-language explanations of scientific processes, Cooke's book reads like a travelogue through the still-wild places of the Earth, revealing the complexity of animal life that most of us will never glimpse, and narrated with the tone of a good friend confiding her adventures to the reader. (Rose Rankin)

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The Brilliant Abyss

The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It
by Helen Scales

Paperback Jun 2022. 288 pages
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

The deep sea is a frightening, awe-inspiring place. In The Brilliant Abyss, marine biologist and broadcaster Helen Scales offers a guided tour of this astounding, under-explored region of our planet. She also argues urgently for the need to protect it from the growing threat of national interest and corporate exploitation. The most outlandish creations of science fiction can't hold a candle to the inhabitants of the abyss, and I enjoyed the even-handed way Scales bestows her attention on them. The great whales that "headbutt the sky" are lavished with as much admiration as the minute Osedax worms that feast on their decaying bones, which gave me an equal appreciation for both. In this way, the author subtly expresses the significance of even the smallest species for the health of the marine ecosystem — a point that becomes important later, when she outlines both the current and potential threats to this ecosystem. (Grace Graham-Taylor)

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Remarkably Bright Creatures

Remarkably Bright Creatures: A Novel
by Shelby Van Pelt

Paperback Jan 2, 2024. 368 pages
Published by Ecco

Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures, is set in the fictional town of Sowell Bay in upper Washington State, one of those coastal villages where the best restaurant in town is a deli attached to the area's only grocery store and everyone is "up in everyone else's business," as one character puts it. It is, however, large enough to support a small aquarium that houses, among other animals, a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus — a "remarkably bright creature" according to the plaque near his tank. He is, indeed, so intelligent that he can understand human speech and escape at will to snack on the sea cucumbers one tank over. The book combines realism with the supernatural; certainly an octopus capable of intervening in human affairs is an unlikely beast. But while Marcellus's actions are critical to the plot's ultimate resolution, it's the novel's underlying themes of grief, loneliness and change that propel it along. (Kim Kovacs)

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Once There Were Wolves

Once There Were Wolves
by Charlotte McConaghy

Paperback May 2022. 272 pages
Published by Flatiron Books

In Charlotte McConaghy's second novel after her debut Migrations, environmental biologist Inti Flynn has just arrived in Scotland. The head of a controversial rewilding project, she is tasked with overseeing the release of wolves throughout Cairngorms National Park. Fearing for their livestock, the surrounding community of rural farmers is immediately resistant, and their hostility reaches a fever pitch when a man is found dead. Inti is determined to absolve the wolves of blame — and thus spare them from a brutal culling — but to do so means proving there's a killer in their midst. McConaghy's prose is gorgeous, without ever feeling overwrought. She paints vivid pictures of Scotland's rugged landscape, contrasting its beauty with the inherent dangers of living and working on such harsh terrain. She imparts the suggestion that we may yet be able to reclaim what has been lost — a world in which we are all kinder to the planet, ourselves, and each other. (Callum McLaughlin)

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Barn 8

Barn 8
by Deb Olin Unferth

Paperback Mar 2020. 256 pages
Published by Graywolf Press

While the characters of Barn 8 are exceedingly compelling, the novel is fundamentally an ode to the humble chicken and a critique of factory farming wrapped up in a darkly comical heist plot. The subject of animal rights is addressed with urgency and passion, but the book succeeds because of Deb Olin Unferth's light touch. While there are blunt descriptions of the conditions in which hens live on a factory farm that will be disturbing to some readers, the more difficult passages are tempered by Unferth's dry wit and the overall farcical depiction of the heist. (Lisa Butts)

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The Bear

The Bear
by Andrew Krivak

Paperback Feb 2020. 224 pages
Published by Bellevue Literary Press

The Bear isn't just about the last two people on Earth, an unnamed father and daughter who live in a time after some sort of apocalyptic event has felled humanity. It's about grief—how the father has dealt with the loss of his wife, who died not long after giving birth to the girl, and how the girl will learn to live through this pain as well. It's no spoiler to say that the father dies a little over halfway through The Bear, since this is implied in the book jacket's plot summary. Afterwards, the girl must contend with being truly alone until a talking bear enters her singular world. This is a novel that can change perceptions of the Earth and our place in it. It becomes so obvious that we do not dominate the natural world. We have never dominated it. We are merely guest stars on this planet who have been granted an incredibly generous arc. The novel may inspire a recoupling with nature, or a new connection if you haven't had much of one before. (Rory L. Aronsky)

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The Friend

The Friend
by Sigrid Nunez

Paperback Feb 2019. 224 pages
Published by Riverhead Books

The Friend is a quiet, elegiac story of a woman attempting to come to terms with the death of her dear friend and mentor. Her grief is compounded by the sudden responsibility of caring for her deceased friend's large, desolate dog. Nunez achieves a beautiful feat – she tells a rich and satisfying story through short vignettes, each seemingly about a very small topic. As a whole, they make up an intricate tapestry of a complicated inner life, but break them apart and you have many fully formed narratives, each with a heart of its own. Put down the book after finishing a short, page-long piece and you will have enough to think about for the rest of the day. How many books can say the same? (Natalie Vaynberg)

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The Dragon Behind the Glass

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World's Most Coveted Fish
by Emily Voigt

Paperback May 2017. 336 pages
Published by Scribner

How can you tell when an obsession has truly grown out of control? When a country, in this case Singapore, boasts of a mechanic turned repairman for fish. Yes, you heard that right: For. Fish. And if this whole thing sounds a little...well, fishy, consider this: The person who does this job, "Dr. Arowana," as he is referred to, pioneered the use of diamond-cutting tools to fix the eyeballs of the legendary creature under scrutiny – the Asian arowana, or dragon fish. "Two decades later, there's now a cottage industry of fin jobs, jaw tucks, and piscine eye lifts," points out the doggedly perseverant journalist Emily Voigt in her brilliant narrative nonfiction debut. The Dragon Behind the Glass is not just a marvelous peek into an industry very few of us have heard of, it's an immensely enjoyable portrait of the lengths we can go to feed our obsessions. (Poornima Apte)

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The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story
by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Paperback Sep 2016. 208 pages
Published by Algonquin Books

Elisabeth Tova Bailey isn't the first to turn illness toward inspiration; however, I'm fairly certain that she may be the first to incorporate the companionship of a snail to do so. While bookstore shelves are teeming with shattering memoirs and incredible life-changing events, a unique and quiet calm surrounds The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating that gently lifts Bailey's story a bit above the rest. The hero of this story enters...well...rather slowly. It doesn't don a cape or sport a lightning bolt on its chest, but when a visiting friend places an acorn-sized snail in the planter next to Bailey's bed, its effects are monumental. Mesmerized by the snail's practical courage and easy adaptability as it starts its life anew, Bailey begins to brighten. (Megan Shaffer)

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H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

Paperback Mar 2016. 320 pages
Published by Grove Press

When Helen Macdonald, an historian and academic lecturer at Cambridge University, learns of the sudden death of her father, a photojournalist, she is driven by her grief to immerse herself in the great pastime and passion of her youth. This time, however, Macdonald is not drawn to the smaller and more manageable hawks or falcons; instead, she is determined to train and hunt with a goshawk, birds she had previously thought of as "things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets." In the end, Macdonald — as she begins to emerge from the grief that has almost consumed her — is able to reflect on larger questions, such as how and why humans imbue wild creatures with human qualities and whose version of "nature" is worth preserving. (Norah Piehl)

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A very good list about animal books. However, you missed two of the recent best: “Perestroika in Paris” and “The Horse the Boy the Fox and the Mole”.

I loved both and found Perestroika so moving as it is told from so many points of view, the land, the sky, and the water. Each character sees the elephant in the room from a different perspective.

I love these articles, thank you.
# Posted By Jacquelyn McCoy | 8/8/23 11:04 AM
Wonderful list! I've read several and have just downloaded the audio for Barn 8. I'd add E.B. White's animal classics to the list - especially Charlotte's Web.
# Posted By Nancy Brown | 8/25/23 10:35 AM
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