Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is a staple of American literature. It’s a novel many people encounter in their youth, and it leaves a lasting impression as London explores his favorite theme: The tension between man (and civilization) and nature.
The story balances on a razor’s edge between tragedy and triumph. Buck, a large St. Bernard and Collie mutt, lives happily in California with his Master until he’s kidnapped and transported to the Yukon, where he’s enslaved as a sled dog. Buck endures terrible hardship and loss before being rescued by a kind man and nursed back to health. Buck slowly feels his ties to humans fading as he yearns for a wild life he seems to remember from an ancestor, and after his last Master is murdered, he answers that call and heads into the wilderness, becoming a legend.
The combination of the unique point-of-view, thrilling adventure, and emotionally complex characters keeps this classic story on reading lists more than a century after its publication. If you loved this book, here are 10 more like The Call of the Wild for your shelves.
1. White Fang, by Jack London
It’s practically a rule: If you love The Call of the Wild, you must read London’s 1906 thematic sequel, White Fang. Here London explores the nature of violence and its place in both the wild and civilized worlds through a story that’s the inverse of The Call of the Wild: White Fang is a wolf-dog hybrid born wild who is slowly introduced to a human Master and living the domesticated life. Like Buck in the earlier novel, White Fang experiences terror and violence. He’s rescued by a man named Weedon Scott, who begins domesticating him. When Scott attempts to leave White fang behind, the dog follows him and is eventually taken to Scott’s home in California where White Fang’s talent for wild violence comes in handy. London skillfully compares the bloody business of survival in the wild with the sometimes bloodier business of surviving in society, but the story resolves on a note that questions whether the pattern of violence might someday be broken.
2. King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry
If the aspect of The Call of the Wild that you loved is the journey, King of the Wind will scratch that itch for you. This 1949 classic won the Newbery Medal for excellence and follows a mute slave named Agba, who is appointed Horseboy to a stallion named Sham, charged with remaining with the horse throughout its life. When Sham is sent to France as a gift to the King, Agba accompanies him, and the two begin an adventure as they search for their places in the world.
While there is none of London’s philosophical exploration of the wild-civilized divide here, the intense relationship between human and animal is center stage. Sham and Agba are both slaves in a way, and both accept their various fates while taking agency where they can. Agba refuses to abandon Sham even when staying by his side seems impossible, and Sham fights for the affections of a mare. Sham’s victory ultimately sets in motion a whole new life for both himself and Agba, securing the stage for the triumphant ending.
3. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
One of the best-selling novels of all time, Sewell’s 19th century book is told as the autobiography of Black Beauty, a horse born into a happy rural life that is soon torn away. If you found the animal’s subtly alien point of view in The Call of the Wild to be its most compelling feature, you’ll love Black Beauty; Sewell’s skillful use of anthropomorphism is very effective in establishing the horse as a personality.
Sewell’s goal was to expose and combat animal cruelty, and she explicitly sought to accomplish this by making the horse at the center of her story a sympathetic creature. Beauty’s adventures mimic Buck’s in London’s novel in the sense that Beauty is often at the mercy of the men who come to own him, and must find ways to survive even when his existence is less than ideal. The book had a real impact on how animals, especially draft horses, were treated in the 19th century and continues to be influential in the anti-animal cruelty movement today.
4. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
A book about rabbits doesn’t have the same cache as a book about a noble dog, but Adams’ complex and emotionally rich story about a group of rabbits searching for a new home when their warren (the underground tunnels where they live) is destroyed carries quite the emotional punch. In many ways, Adams explores the same themes that fascinated London: The necessity of violence, the role of civilization, and the purity of an animal’s survival instinct.
Where London used realism and clarity in his descriptions to convey the vast, dangerous wilderness, Adams brings a lyricism and mythological feel to his story. In Watership Down, he draws on ancient myths and heroic stories. His rabbits have flashes of mystical power and severe flaws that almost lead them to their doom, and he structures his story as a hero’s journey similar to epic poems like The Odyssey. The ultimate lesson of the story is that peace and safety must be earned, and through his surprisingly well-developed rabbit characters, Adams makes the reader want that safety for them.
5. Big Red, by James Arthur Kjelgaard
In some ways, Big Red is the ideal middle ground between a focus on the violence and unpredictable brutality of nature and a focus on the mysterious and often beautiful bond between man and animal. A young boy named Danny meets Red, a champion Irish Setter, and the two instantly share a powerful bond. A poor boy like Danny shouldn’t have any chance at having a dog of Red’s caliber, but their connection is too powerful to be denied, and they soon become constant companions.
This beautifully rendered relationship is set against a wilderness that is as unforgiving and terrifying as anything in London’s work. When Danny is injured and stalked by a wildcat, Big Red stands guard all night and keeps him safe. Nature is personified by the terrifying bear everyone calls Old Majesty. Danny and Red’s struggle to survive their encounter with him is a shared drive and is thrillingly and thoughtfully conveyed, ultimately celebrating the bond between living things that transcends everything else.
6. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling’s 1894 novel is a collection of connected stories focused on Mowgli, an abandoned boy raised by wolves and other denizens of a forest in India. Kipling’s animals aren’t really animals—they’re presented as stand-ins for human nature, allowing Kipling to explore his themes of order versus chaos and abandonment versus brotherhood. Mowgli and his wolf pack are aided by friends like Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the panther, who teach the law of the jungle, and threatened by the malevolent tiger Shere Khan.
But this contrast makes The Jungle Book an ideal companion to The Call of the Wild. Kipling presents a wilderness that is as reliant on rules and order as our own, as opposed to a London-esque wilderness filled with violence that must be survived. Mowgli and his animal family face challenges and villains, but there is always a comforting sense of order to it all. These stories feed right into the childlike desire to be able to run free—but to come back to civilization when it suits us.
7. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
Stein’s 2008 novel takes a different approach to a story narrated by an animal, sharing with The Call of the Wild a philosophical approach to existence focused through the lens of a simpler creature. Enzo is a dog, cared for by racecar driver Denny. Enzo comes to believe that when a dog is “prepared” it can be reincarnated as a human, seen as a positive evolution. Enzo wants this very badly and spends his life attempting to learn everything he can about being human in order to be prepared, ultimately saving Denny’s life in many different ways as he does so.
Part of the success of The Art of Racing in the Rain is how Stein transforms melodramatic plot developments—a terminal illness, a custody battle—into explorations of existence. Enzo’s certainty that his own life is merely a stepping stone towards something larger and more important lends his commentary a weight and power that many other stories told from an animal’s point of view lack.
8. The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams
Adams’ 1977 novel The Plague Dogs is about two dogs who escape from a horrifying research center and the brutal experiments performed on them there, and shares with Black Beauty an intentional focus on the cruelty humans often inflict on innocent animals. Rowf and Snitter head into the wilderness, assisted by a red fox named The Tod. They prefer the suffering of being on their own to the torture they endured at the lab. When they attack some sheep in a desperate bid for food, a self-serving newspaper reporter makes them out to be monstrous man-killing dogs, and they find themselves hunted. The hunt intensifies when suspicions arise that they are infected with a bioweapon from the lab.
Rowf and Snitter don’t slide into a more feral existence, but Adams’ focus on animal cruelty and the lived experiences of creatures tortured in the name of progress inverts the violence that London explored in The Call of the Wild and White Fang. This isn’t the random, natural violence of the wilderness. This is clinical, planned violence inflicted on animals that have no agency. Their attempt to break free and live on their own terms brings even more violence down on them, but there’s something inspiring in the dogs’ refusal to give up.
9. Sounder, by William H. Armstrong
Sounder is the story of an unnamed boy, the son of a poor sharecropper, and his struggles to break free of the cycle of poverty he’s trapped in. His father can’t support the family; he goes hunting every night with his dog, Sounder, but there is still not enough food. When he steals a ham in desperation, he’s arrested—and Sounder runs off after getting shot by the officers. The boy is convinced Sounder is still alive, and when the dog eventually returns, badly injured, he nurses him back to health.
Sounder isn’t the main focus of the story, and we don’t get inside the dog’s head at all. Sounder is a loyal dog who is punished for that loyalty. Viewing the story from Sounder’s point of view brings out obvious parallels between the dog and the father—both torn from their home and injured—but it can also be seen as an alternative take on stories like Call of the Wild. This is a story from the perspective of the kindly Masters left behind when their animals are pulled into the wilderness to find their own destiny.
10. Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
Newbery-winner Old Yeller is famous as a tear-jerker, but it also resonates with The Call of the Wild’s view of nature as essentially cruel yet beautiful. Initially, Travis Coates doesn’t want the mangy yellow dog that invites itself into his life, but he comes to love it as Old Yeller proves his worth. When Yeller faces a dangerous fate, Travis must decide what is best for the dog and his legacy.
Old Yeller’s destiny—despite being a very good dog and finding love and safety after a rough time—underscores the unforgiving nature of the wild world, a theme shared with London’s novel. The stories also share a theme of connection—in The Call of the Wild, Buck feels a connection to his ancestry, to a wilder time when dogs weren’t tame. In Old Yeller, the human sees a connection to the future in Yeller’s pups, a continuation of his spirit. It’s an emotionally rich story that is deservedly a classic.