Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is considered a classic thanks to its relatable characters and bittersweet ending. Since its publication in 1952, it has taught generations of children lessons about friendship, growing up, death, and grief. Like other books starring animal characters, it also raises some interesting ethical questions about animal cruelty. On this list you’ll find a selection of 17 books that marry compelling stories and characters with important messages that resonate with readers well into adulthood. They’re not all animal stories, but they have the nuance and depth to be appreciated by readers of any age.
1. Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Peterson
Bridge to Terabithia has been delighting (and devastating) readers since 1977. It tells the story of Jess Aarons, a lonely boy who makes friends with his new neighbor, Leslie Burke. Together they invent Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods, and grapple with real world problems like bullying, first crushes, and annoying siblings. This is one of those books that really feels like it came straight out of the brain of its protagonist. Peterson’s writing is distinctive, rich in startling and vivid word-pictures. The ending is famously bittersweet, though if you’re unfamiliar with the book or film, do not look up spoilers. Bridge to Terabithia is almost unsurpassed as a portrait of childhood innocence.
2. The Rescuers, by Margery Sharp
You might remember Bernard and Bianca from the Disney movie, which is almost nothing like the book. Sharp’s heroic pair of mice are joined by Nils, a mouse adventurer/translator, and together they embark on a prison break, rescuing a human poet from the formidable Black Castle. The Rescuers blends sly wit with rollicking adventure and adorable details, like Bianca’s tiny motor boat. That being said, there are a few sexist comments and some dark elements; Castle Black is a grim place and home to a particularly evil cat. But Bianca ends up with a fulfilling career and the book’s messages about teamwork and making a difference—despite feeling small and powerless—are heartwarming. The story is complemented by marvelous illustrations by Garth Williams, who also illustrated Charlotte’s Web.
3. Goodnight, Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian
This story of an abused wartime evacuee unexpectedly finding a loving home with a gruff widower has been a classic since its publication in 1981. Goodnight, Mister Tom tells the tale of William Beech, who is evacuated to the countryside on the eve of World War II and left in the care of Tom Oakley, a cantankerous but kind old man. It’s a vivid portrait of the Second World War that’s written for children, but doesn’t flinch from distressing themes like child abuse, war, and bereavement. Antisemitism, mental illness, and sexism are also discussed. The result is a book that’s heartwarming and gutting by turns. Ultimately, it’s a beautiful story about healing and finding yourself and a family. The serious subject matter renders it unsuitable for very young readers, but it’s a thought-provoking historical novel for anyone over 10.
4. A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden may be better known (and is also delightful), but I’ve always had a soft spot for A Little Princess. It’s the story of Sara Crewe, a young heiress living at a boarding school in London. Meanly nicknamed “princess,” Sara embraces the epithet and strives to live up to it, being down-to-earth and generous. Despite her changing circumstances and the abuse she suffers, Sara holds onto her dignity and identity as a “princess.” Of course, little girls will love the concept of “every girl’s a princess,” but boys should not be discouraged from reading; the message boils down to Be Who You Want To Be, no matter what anyone says. Be warned, though, A Little Princess was first published in 1905, so expect some values dissonance, particularly in relation to colonialism.
5. The Story of Tracy Beaker, by Jacqueline Wilson
On the opposite end of the privilege scale is Tracy Beaker, a 10-year-old living in a children’s home. Tracy narrates her story and is an irrepressible but vulnerable heroine who dreams of being rescued by her birth mother. Tracy is also a “problem child” who frequently misbehaves due to her loneliness and frustration. Child neglect and domestic violence are also background themes and the reason Tracy lives in the “Dumping Ground.” Even so, The Story of Tracy Beaker is actually very funny and optimistic. Tracy is much more than a victim of awful circumstances; she’s witty, imaginative, and mischievous. Her story validates and explores situations and problems that will be familiar to many children. Nick Sharratt’s quirky illustrations are integral to the book’s charm. If you enjoy the Tracy Beaker series, Wilson has written over 100 books tackling issues affecting children and teenagers including divorce, homelessness, eating disorders, and mental illness.
6. The Witches, by Roald Dahl
This is one of Roald Dahl’s weirder and scarier stories, but it packs an emotional punch. It’s also a brilliant object lesson in understated horror; the little girl in the portrait chills me to this day. The Witches is an adventure story as an unnamed boy and his wise grandmother battle a secret society of child-hating witches. Dahl’s matter-of-fact narration is as witty as ever, balancing the novel’s dark fantasy elements. These include the grotesque witches themselves and body horror, as the witches’ plans revolve around transforming children into mice. The central relationship between the protagonist and his grandmother is the emotional heart of the story and a touching portrait of family and unconditional love. It also makes the ending bittersweet and a little heartbreaking. The Witches may be unsuitable for very young or sensitive readers, but children and adults with a taste for adventure or the macabre will love it.
7. The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
The Tale of Despereaux is a wonderful mix of cheerful whimsy with some darker elements. The title character is a tiny mouse with huge ears who loves stories about knights and just can’t fit in with the other mice. As the narrator knowingly informs us, this means he is bound to have an “interesting fate.” We find out what that fate is as Despereaux meets and falls in love with the human Princess Pea, right before discovering a treacherous plot against her. DiCamillo’s writing is full of bon mots and direct addresses to the reader. This narrative quirk has fallen out of style, so here it feels fresh and fun as it pulls readers into the story. There’s a body count (including the rest of Despereaux’s litter on the very first page) and some children might find the rat villain scary. But the book’s general optimism, adorable illustrations, and earnest messages about forgiveness and being true to yourself create balance.
8. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski
I discovered this book as an adult and, honest to God, it made me cry right there in the bookshop. This restrained but deeply emotional story introduces us to Jonathan Toomey, a grumpy and reclusive woodcarver haunted by the loss of his wife and child. The “miracle” is simply the connection he starts to build with a widow and her son, who are new to the village and commission a set of Nativity figures. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey is very much a story of grief, but also healing and new beginnings. Wojciechowski masterfully builds the emotion to a heart-rending but cathartic climax, topped off by a blessedly happy ending. The illustrations by P. J. Lynch are gorgeous and exquisitely detailed, adding another layer of warmth to the touching story. It’s great to read aloud, but the prose is simple enough for reading grades 1-2.
9. The Bear Nobody Wanted, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
If you set Toy Story in World War II, you might end up with something like this. Due to a few misplaced stitches on its face, the teddy of the title has an unappealing, haughty expression that affects its character and is off-putting to potential owners. Over the course of the book, it is lost, rejected, and abandoned by a string of children in increasingly distressing ways. It may not be the nicest teddy, but the Ahlbergs build pathos, and the central message—that people can and do change—is an important one, especially for children. The Ahlbergs are probably better known for their picture books, like Each Peach Pear Plum and Burglar Bill. But The Bear Nobody Wanted also features Janet’s trademark illustrations and is surprisingly emotional for a story about sentient toys. Its reading level is suitable for children who are eight and over.
10. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls is a haunting and profoundly affecting exploration of loss. It’s the story of a boy named Conor and a mysterious monster that visits him three times to tell him stories. The monster wants to hear a story in return, the truth about Conor’s painful, conflicting emotions about his mother’s illness. This is a direct but compassionate look at human frailty and selfishness. The monster’s stories scrutinize these themes from various angles, though the existence of the monster itself is pleasingly ambiguous. Is it real or a manifestation of Conor’s sadness and anger? In any event, it lends the novel a beguilingly fairytale atmosphere, despite its modern setting. The real life backstory of the book gives the whole thing an extra melancholy edge; Patrick Ness took on the project after fellow novelist, Siobhan Dowd, died of cancer before she could finish it.
11. The Animals of Farthing Wood, by Colin Dann
Colin Dann has written a number of animal themed books, but The Animals of Farthing Wood and the series it spawned must be the most enduringly popular. Like Charlotte’s Web, it features a group of animals cooperating for survival. With Farthing Wood on the brink of destruction, its animal inhabitants are forced to band together for the perilous journey to a wildlife refuge named White Deer Park. There’s a degree of realism here as the animals navigate the threats of the human and natural world, including roads, rivers and predators. There are casualties along the way. Still, it’s an exciting adventure and survival story featuring unlikely animal allies from Fox, the group’s leader, right down to field mice. And since it’s all about animal refugees fleeing the destruction of their home, there’s a strong environmental message about the impact of human activity on wildlife and their habitats.
12. War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo is one of the UK’s most beloved children’s authors, and one of the most prolific. But War Horse remains arguably his best known work, especially after the success of the play and 2011 movie adaptation. If you’ve seen either, you’ll know that War Horse is Black Beauty for World War I. Joey the horse adores his owner, Albert. But when he is sold to the army, Joey must survive bloody, terrifying battles, all while Albert desperately searches for him. Morpurgo brings the horrors of the Great War vividly and often brutally to life. Given how war can be romanticized, this is an important message to convey. Morpurgo also captures the beautiful relationships that can develop between animals and humans, as well as the cruelty of using animals in warfare. It’s an eye-opening, sad and sometimes scary story that can introduce children to the realities of war in an accessible, readable format.
13. The Starlight Barking, by Dodie Smith
This little-known sequel to The Hundred and One Dalmatians is criminally underrated. It stars Pongo and the other animals of the original novel facing a new cosmic threat as all the humans fall into a mysterious magical sleep. This leaves it up to a vast network of dogs to solve the mystery and save their humans. Like in Charlotte’s Web, animals organizing and working together is the basis of The Starlight Barking. The picture of Dog Society that Smith presents captured my imagination as a child and is still fun to read as an adult. While the first half of the book is an adventure/mystery, the conflict between loyalty and self-preservation becomes a major and surprisingly weighty theme toward the end. Published in 1967, there’s also a significant anti-war and nuclear weapons message. If nothing else, it will give readers of any age a renewed appreciation for their canine friends.
14. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is another anthropomorphic story, this time starring rats and mice. Mrs. Frisby is a widowed mouse who is forced by circumstances to seek out the mysterious colony of hyper intelligent rats living next door. The animal societies O’Brien imagines are fascinating, particularly that of the genetically engineered genius rats. Mrs. Frisby is also a brilliant heroine who holds her own and fights fiercely for her family. There’s plenty of peril and mystery as the secrets of the rats and NIMH are gradually revealed. Spoiler: animal testing is a central ethical theme. Very young or sensitive children might find the animal cruelty and other scary scenes too upsetting, but the danger adds lots of intrigue and excitement to the story for older readers. This book is suitable for children around eight years and older, though the concept and its brilliant execution make it a treat for readers of any age.
15. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, by Jill Tomlinson
This book (for ages five and up) is a very sweet story about Plop the baby barn owl overcoming his fear of the dark. He does this by venturing out one night and interacting with various human and animal characters. Written for children who share Plop’s phobia, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark is a gentle exploration of the joys of night-time, from fireworks to stargazing. There isn’t really much of a plot beyond this, but the prose is comforting and the illustrations are beautiful. Jill Tomlinson has written a whole series of educational animal tales in a similar vein, like The Cat Who Wanted To Go Home and The Penguin Who Wanted To Find Out, which are also very readable. Tomlinson had a gift for presenting information in an easy-to-digest format, and for examining issues that many children struggle with in a reassuring way.
16. Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
If you could, would you really want to live forever? That’s the central question of Tuck Everlasting. When 10-year-old Winnie befriends a family of immortals, she’s pulled into protecting the secret of the spring that grants them eternal youth. The question is, will she decide to drink from it, too? There is adventure and child-appropriate action here as Winnie and the Tucks strive to guard their secrets. The childhood romance between Winnie and Jesse, the youngest Tuck, is sweet, as long as you don’t think about it too hard (he’s 104 years old!). In the end, this is a melancholy story that deconstructs some of the romance surrounding the concepts of eternal life and love. Tuck Everlasting is a thought-provoking read that is still one of the best examinations of immortality around, especially for children.
17. The Sheep-Pig, by Dick King-Smith
The Sheep-Pig inspired the popular movie Babe and is equally charming. It also has several superficial similarities to Charlotte’s Web, since it’s about a young pig learning a new talent to escape the dinner table. Instead of a spider, a sheepdog adopts young Babe, inspiring him to become a “sheep-pig”. In the process, his struggle to be taken seriously leads Babe to reevaluate everything he’s been told about the sheep. Mutual respect and overcoming prejudices are big themes, making this a surprisingly timely story for 2020. As a protagonist, Babe is a great role model, being kind, open-minded and brave. While the book has some serious moments and messages, the general tone is comic and lighthearted and written simply enough for children aged seven and up to read by themselves. Whether you want to enjoy it as a simple animal adventure, or use it to start conversations, The Sheep-Pig is as entertaining and relevant today as it was in 1983.