If you adorned your childhood bedroom with posters of horse breeds or bird species (guilty on both counts right here), you’ve come to the right place. A childhood spent in the thrall of books about adventurous and loyal dogs has led me here. The tattered paperbacks of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small series I kept in my desk in middle school gave me away. It’s no secret that I love animals, and I love stories about animals.
We can’t look away from the fact that our planet, and by extension the animals on it, are under threat. So many of the nonfiction books about animals catalog the atrocities humans have been committing against them: stealing habitat, changing the climate, hunting them to extinction. These books are important, but so are the feel-good nonfiction books about animals. These are the kinds of stories that remind us of the astonishing bonds between humans and animals. They help us remember what we need to be fighting for. And they open our eyes to the amazing and diverse ways life exists on this spectacular planet. It delights me to share this list with you, full of wondrous and touching stories about the animal world.
Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal by Sarah Maslin Nir
As a former horse girl myself, I have to include a book that delves into the magical relationships between humans and their trusty steeds. If you’re not familiar with Sarah Maslin Nir by name, you may know her other work, namely the Pulitzer Prize–winning series in The New York Times about the exploitative and dangerous world of nail salons. Here, she turns her attention to horses, blending her own memoir into the compelling stories of a wide array of horse people like (and unlike) herself.
On Animals by Susan Orlean
When Susan Orlean turns her attention on something, the results are reliably luminous. If you’re a podcast fan, let me recommend dipping into the archives of her Crybabies podcast. It might be the only podcast dedicated to crying? This collection of stories about all sorts of animals will delight and enchant you. If you want a taste, check out her essay from On Animals about oxen, “Carbonaro and Primavera,” previously published in The Atlantic.
Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife by Rodney Stotts
An especially touching detail in this memoir of one of the few Black master falconers in the U.S. is that visits to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo sparked his initial interest in raptors. Giving kids free access to experiences that ignite their imagination and promote dreaming is vital! Rodney Stotts had to overcome tremendous hardship to make it in his career. It’s amazing and inspiring to read about someone with such commitment to honoring the wild dreams of his childhood.
The Social Lives of Animals by Ashley Ward
If you were a kid who pored over books stuffed with facts about animals — where are my fellow Zoobooks magazine fans? — here is a book you will love. Biologist Ashley Ward spanned the globe looking for the myriad ways animals form societies. He covers termites, marine mammals, and everything in between. The book is packed with humor and insightful stories. You’ll likely come out of it with a new outlook on how you yourself are an animal, too.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Fumi Nakamura
When poets write prose, you have to read it! That’s my rule. This book establishes the kinship Aimee Nezhukumatathil feels with all manner of creatures, from axolotls to flamingoes to vampire squid. Plants get their turn too, like the magnificent corpse flower. All are described with warmth and love, paired with reflections about how human foibles are mirrored in the natural world. And don’t miss the gorgeous illustrations from Fumi Nakamura.
Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals by Laurie Zaleski
Plenty of us dream about establishing a sanctuary for animal friends who’ve had a rough go at life. But Laurie Zaleski followed through on that dream. It was originally her mother’s dream, in fact, that Laurie eventually realized. Laurie’s story is heartwrenching at first, laden with the abuse and abandonment no person or animal deserves. But the book is proof of resilience, and the value of forging your own best life. It’s also a reminder that relationships with animals can truly help us through tough times.
Crossing the Line: A Fearless Team of Brothers and the Sport That Changed Their Lives Forever by Kareem Rosser
Polo is a sport that’s tough for most people to wrap their head around. Having watched a handful of matches — look, I went to a college with a polo team and I already told you about that horse poster in my childhood bedroom — I can tell you it’s basically soccer on horseback. Although it’s a sport people associate with wealth and aristocracy and above all, whiteness, that’s not all it is. This story of a champion all-Black polo team that grew out of Philadelphia’s The Work to Ride stables proves that. A gifted storyteller, Kareem Rosser infuses his unflinching look at his tough upbringing in Philly with his true love of horses.
Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea by Bill François
I’ve always been captivated by life under water, and Bill François shares my fascination. With a focus on fish and other marine life, he blends memoir, travel writing, natural history, and even some anthropology into his lyrical and touching anecdotes. The threat humans pose to animal life, especially ocean life, can’t be ignored in nonfiction books about animals. Still, the attention and care the author brings to such creatures as the humble sardine will undeniably charm you.
Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Dogs’ love for humanity shows that we must be doing something right. Don’t you want to be your best self? If not for yourself, then for for the dogs in your life? Jennifer Finney Boylan is a trans woman who transitioned in her 40s. She became her best self through a series of moments that she shares with readers, translated through the dogs in her life at these times. Through her connection to dogs, Jennifer has learned about what it really means to give and receive love. Gah, it’s too much! What did we do to deserve dogs??
The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir by Alice Walker
Alice Walker is certainly best known for her classic The Color Purple. However, she also wrote a memoir about keeping chickens! Anyone interested in having a little flock of their own will appreciate her musings. Her dedication to her “girls,” as she calls them, is evident. Spending time in the company of animals can help you truly see them, and also see yourself. This book is an account of that process.
I feel good just telling you about these books. Imagine how good you’ll feel reading them! And it doesn’t stop at nonfiction books about animals. We’ve got a list of the favorite animal stories among Book Rioters, recommendations for animal comics and graphic novels, and recommendations for younger animal lovers, too. I hope you find something that expands your love for our feathered, finned, and furry friends.