As children, we were all familiar with books with nonhuman protagonists. It wasn’t uncommon for animals to be doing very human things like visiting the dentist or going to school. As we grow up, the stories we read tend to be more and more exclusively about humans with, perhaps, a silent pet added in for variety. In this article, I will explore all kinds of nonhuman protagonists and also why they are so often cats.
A lot has been written about the relationship humans have with cats. This really interesting video from The New Yorker discusses the physical and emotional features that may have attracted humans to cats in the first place. Cats seem very much like us, which could be why they’re often stand-ins for humans living in community in books. We love our dogs, but we see ourselves in our cats.
Not all books that aren’t about humans are necessarily about animals, though. On the other side of the technological spectrum, what can an android tell us about what it means to be human? What makes someone a “being” and someone else a “creation?”
These books span genres and themes but all have one thing in common, and it is through these alternate protagonists, as though from looking at ourselves sideways, that we see ourselves most clearly.
The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward
This tale of an unsolved kidnapping is partially narrated by a very self-aware cat. The cat, her owner, and a teenage girl who is no longer allowed outside live in an uneasy peace, which is shattered when a woman moves in next door. Her presence threatens to dig up old secrets. Nothing is as it seems in this truly unforgettable horror novel.
The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hero Arikawa
Nana, a cat with a crooked tail signifying good fortune, travels across Japan with his owner, Satoru. Nana believes that their only purpose is to visit three of Satoru’s old friends, but their journey will bring much more to them than these reunions. This international bestseller allows the reader to join Satoru and Nana in their silver van and learn the meaning of loyalty, and of love.
Timbuktu by Paul Auster
Mr. Bones is a dog and is the sidekick of Willy G. Christmas, a brilliant but troubled poet from Brooklyn. Mr. Bones accompanies Willy on what is to be their last great adventure: a road trip to Baltimore to find Willy’s high school teacher, Bea Swanson. Is the teacher still alive? And if she isn’t, what will keep Willy from vanishing beyond where Mr. Bones can reach him, into another world known as Timbuktu?
The Bees by Laline Paull
Flora 717, the unusual narrator of The Bees, is, unsurprisingly, a bee. She is darker than most other bees and is working to go unnoticed in a world where difference can be deadly. She should not have been allowed to survive, but her great strength is an asset to the hive. When she dares to question the queen’s fertility, she puts herself into conflict with the society she lives in, and with her own conscience, putting herself on a collision course with the unthinkable things that must be done to survive.
The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa
High school student Rintaro Natsuki is preparing to close the used book store he inherited from his grandfather when a talking cat appears and asks him to help him save books. How does one save books? By liberating them from owners who neglect them. The pair enter a series of mazes to rescue books from those who want to use them as decoration, or as commodities, but it’s the last maze that will challenge them the most.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Tova Sullivan became the night cleaner at the Sowell Bay Aquarium following the death of her husband. She knows that keeping busy will keep her from dwelling on the loss, the same way she has kept busy since her 18-year-old son disappeared on a boat, 30 years before. At the aquarium she befriends Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus who deduces what happened to Tova’s son and decides that he must help her unearth the truth before it’s too late.
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
S.T., a domesticated crow, just wants to watch television with his owner, Big Jim, and eat the finest food man has to offer, Cheetos. But when Big Jim is suddenly no longer able to care for him, S.T. and his noble steed Dennis (a dog) find themselves out in the wild. Humans are suddenly devouring each other and the only creature who can save them is a crow who has watched a lot of TV.
BEASTARS by Paru Itagaki
This manga takes place in a high school in which the students are divided into predators and prey. Some of them will rise to the level of a Beastar — a leader in a society full of mistrust. One night, a herbivore is murdered and investigating the most likely killer brings a gray wolf, Legoshi, and a dwarf rabbit, Haru, closer than they’d planned on becoming.
The Book of Night With Moon by Diane Duane
This companion series to Diane Duane’s better-known Young Wizards books focuses on the cats that manage the gates between worlds in places like Grand Central Station. Rhiow seems like a perfectly normal Manhattan house cat to her owners. When they aren’t looking, however, she and her team work with human wizards to not only maintain the gateways, but to protect the earth from dark forces.
The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy
In the first book in a duology, we meet a band of feral cats in Delhi. There are warriors, queens, elders, and of course kittens in their colony. They live as they wish and go as they please, until the day a new kitten with remarkable powers lands in their midst, setting off a series of events that will change everything.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Murderbot does not care about humans. Murderbot wants to be left alone to consume media and figure out what it is, thanks to the fact that it was able to hack its governor module and is now self-governing. When a scientific expedition goes awry, Murderbot’s feelings about the humans it is protecting become decidedly conflicted.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
An encounter with an alien artifact turns a young girl into Sankofa, the adopted daughter of Death. The artifact has given her some curious powers. She can level a town at a glance and she travels alone, left to answer the question: what is her purpose? This book takes place in the same universe as Okorafor’s earlier novel Who Fears Death.
Still want more unique books? Check out this list of books with odd plots.