Who hasn't wished they could, like Dr Doolittle, talk to the animals? Just imagine it: chattin' with a chimp in chimpanzee. Plenty of authors have, from E.B White to Lewis Caroll and Yann Martell, and the stories they've left behind offer us a flight of fancy into how to communicate with our furry friends. 

While there are undeniably more books about, say, dogs than there are dolphins, a vast expanse of the animal kingdom is represented in books they'll never read. Mercifully, we can – and we've rounded up the best of them for this practically purrfect literary animal alphabet.

A is for Ant

Aesop’s Fables by Aesop

Aesop’s Fables would go a good way to representing much of the alphabet, but the legacy of The Ant and the Grasshopper has inspired countless authors, economists and musicians in the centuries since. Regardless of which side you take, the story remains simple and enduring: the Ant works hard during the summer to store up food for the winter, while the Grasshopper gallivants around until it is too late.

 

B is for Bear

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

So many good bears in fiction, so little time! It would be remiss, of course, not to mention the adorably sticky Paddington by Michael Brown, or the friendly Baloo from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But in this case, we bow down to the majesty of Philip Pullman’s Iorek Byrnison. Emotionally nuanced but ultimately irresistible, Pullman’s anthropomorphic polar bear deftly told a tale of the oppressed.

C is for Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

It’s remained in print since its release half a century ago, and has sold 50 million copies: it would be remiss not to acknowledge literature’s finest larvae. Eric Carle’s beautifully timeless creation revolutionised how children’s books could look, and offered the author and illustrator an escape from a lacklustre advertising job. As for the caterpillar, well we all know what he turned into…

Read more: The making of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar

D is for Dog

An image from Snoopy

Snoopy by Charles M. Schultz

It was not without controversy that the Penguin.co.uk team ranked the 10 best dogs in fiction, and so in the name of consistency – and to avoid a ruckus – we maintain our position here. Good Boys and Girls appear, of course, in Ulyesses, Anna Karenina and Of Mice and Men, but have any captured the heart like Snoopy? No, no they haven’t.

Read more: An absolutely irrefutable list of the top ten dogs in fiction

E is for Elephant

The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek 

Dramatist Slawomir Mrozek pulled his punches with his 1957 collection of 42 satirical short stories, aimed at the totalitarian regime that ruled his native Poland at the time. The title story is one of Mrozek’s finest and funniest. While the elephant in question may be inflatable and rubber, you’d have to be a churlish fan not to enjoy Mrozek’s lively skewering of the state. Plus, he throws in plenty of eleph-facts. A chaser of Elmer would extend the fantasy nicely.

G is for Guinea Pig

Weirdo by Zadie Smith & Nick Laird

Two firsts for Zadie Smith and Nick Laird: the novelist and poet’s first children’s book, and their first collaborative work. What finer muse, then, than a guinea pig? The mammal in question is Maud, who wears a judo suit, and is largely misunderstood. Adorably illustrated by Magenta Fox, Weirdo is a heartwarming story for children and adults alike - especially if you’ve ever felt slightly out of the ordinary.

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Technically, technically, Mabel, the hero of Macdonald’s Costa Prize-winning, best-selling meditation on grief is a goshawk. But the title ignores that, and so shall we. The art of H is for Hawk lies in Macdonald’s ability to make you care deeply about a creature with a sharp beak and sharper claws. The hawk, she writes, was “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”. This 2013 book ushered in a tidal wave of new nature writing. 

I is for Insect

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Sure, there are cuddly insects – the hungry caterpillars of this world – but have any burrowed deeper into the literary canon than Kafta’s “monstrous vermin”? When Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect (species: unclear, size: enormous), he is subjected to fear and ostracism by his family, employer and neighbours. Arguably Kafka’s most famous work, The Metamorphosis has inspired countless film and stage adaptations, and winking TV references.

J is for Jaguar

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

It’s tricky to choose from among Kipling’s menagerie, but the wise, kind and melancholy Bagheera is a unique king of the jungle. A big cat with a big backstory, what you won’t learn from the films is that he escaped the clutches of human capture as a cub and balances his wariness of man with a learned understanding of boyhood to be Mowgli’s most careful mentor.

 

K is for Koalas and Kangaroos

Wild by Jay Griffiths

Griffths spent seven years living among indigenous tribes for her globe-trotting memoir Wild, but it is the time that she spent among Aboriginal people in Australia that reads most viscerally. Among devastated communities, elders struggle to reconnect with land that has been taken from them. Along the way, we meet kangaroos and koalas, whose futures lie in the white man’s hands.  

 

L is for Lion

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Mercurial, golden and majestic, Aslan is one of the great anthropomorphic heroes of children’s fiction. Over the course of the seven Chronicles of Narnia, the titular lion rises from the dead, leads an army of awakened trees and turns baddies into donkeys. Hail, Aslan!

M is for Mouse

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi  

At times, it seems like the most meaningful relationship in the life of Gyasi’s protagonist Gifty is with the mouse she keeps in her lab. The student neuroscientist narrates Gyasi’s second book, and the mice she experiments on act as a means of exploring the family traumas she has lived through.

N is for Newt

War with the Newts by Karel Capek

Not your average garden variety newt, granted. But any reader of Capek’s will learn plenty about his fictional breed of hyper-intelligent sea-dwelling newts who bolster this wartime Czech novel. Capek adopts the varying tones of anthropologist, journalist and historian to document the newt’s lives (there’s an appendix titled “The Sex Life of the Newts” before dedicating just the final pages of his satire to the titular war.

O is for Owl

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght

Wise and elusive, owls arguably pop up more often in books than they do in our daily lives. And that remains the case in Slaght’s surprisingly gripping book. Even though he rarely enjoys much time with Blakiston’s fish owl, the comically large creature the researcher spends four years tracking down, his pursuit through the frozen wastelands of Eastern Russia are the makings of any good aventure story.

P is for Pig

Charlotte’s Web by E B White

The Sheep-Pig by Dick King Smith, Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Pigling Bland and, of course, our beloved Peppa – how were we to choose just one well-read pig? As the pigs of George Orwell’s Animal Farm state: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, which we feel legitimises us in giving Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web the title of Best Literary Pig. After all, E.B White’s irreverent classic is the best-selling children’s paperback of all time.

Q is for Quail

That Quail, Robert by Margaret A Stanger

Before H is for Hawk, Q was for Quail. In the mid-Sixties, an unlikely book about a bird became a bestseller. Sound familiar? Bobby White, a quail hatchling, emerged in a nest of the Cape Cod home of a retired couple. When their friend, a former children’s nurse Margaret Stanger, quail-sat Robert for three months an unlikely affinity emerged – and one that caught the attention of a nation. That Quail, Robert, fluttered up the New York Times bestseller chart.

R is for Rabbit

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The poll for best bookish rabbit was fiercely fought at Penguin.co.uk: there was the freneticism of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit and the blue shorts of Peter Rabbit to be considered. But for sheer quantity and character development alone, Watership Down wins out. Adams’ legendary bunny book started as a series of stories he would tell his children in the car. When they were eventually published, they became a narrative that would captivate generations.

Read more: Richard Adams at 100: the story behind Watership Down

S is for Sheep

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

James Rebanks intended to tell an untold story with his debut: that of the Lake District shepherds who had followed in the footsteps of their fathers for thousands of years. In frank, handsome prose, Rebanks writes of snow and sheep auctions, of foot and mouth and fells. He succeeded in his mission: The Shepherd’s Life became a runaway bestseller, placing a new voice in the North West of England, centuries after Wordsworth. His follow-up, English Pastoral, told the rest of the story.

Read More: 'Don't give up on us': James Rebanks on the future of farming – and how he saved his land

T is for Tiger

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A Canadian philosophical novel about a castaway tiger that may or may not exist doesn’t sound like a natural phenomenon, and yet that is exactly what Martel created on the turn of the new millennium. Life of Pi has sold more than 12 million copies across 50 countries, and inspired an Oscar-winning adaptation. At its heart? A bengal tiger so vivid and striped it dominates every cover.

How to Grow a Unicorn by Rachel Morrisroe

Such is the explosion in unicorn-based publishing in recent years that for the fantastically inclined, a small library could be built in honour of the lone-horned creatures. Still, Rachel Morrisroe’s charming new book imagines that most wonderful of things: a garden where unicorns sprout from the earth, only to run amok! A cautionary tale if ever there were one.

V is for Vole

Elegy for a River by Tom Moorhouse

Fun fact: Ratty from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was not a rat but a vole. So an honourable mention to him. Conservationist Tom Moorhouse, however, offers a far more exploratory (and less misleading) look at the vole in his book, Elegy for a River. Charting 11 years spent riverside, Moorhouse tracks the vole, its disappearance from our countryside and how we can bring it back.

 

W is for Worm

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Nematode: it’s a kind of worm, don’t ya know?! We learn of its many benefits to the scientific community in Brandon Taylor’s Booker Prize-nominated college story, Real Life. Love, life and academia entwine as biochemistry student Wallace pleads for good results from his worms in an attempt to make sense of who he is, and what he wants.

X is for Xenarthra

Sparky! By Jenny Offill

Xenarthra is the group name for several animals, among them, sloths - an unlikely source of literary inspiration. Their meandering pace to life has been at the heart of several books, but among the best is Sparky! By Jenny Offill. Perhaps better known for her autofiction, which has accrued a cult-like following of readers, Offill is also the author of a heartwarming picture book about a sloth who makes a rather too sanguine pet.

Y is for Yellow-fin tuna

The Fish on Your Plate by Paul Greenberg

Animals exist for far more than food, as this list will hopefully attest, but nevertheless it’s important - especially so as a fish fan - to understand how human consumption of them and the resulting food systems work. Paul Greenberg’s book explains just that as he travels from Eskimo fisheries to Norwegian salmon farms to - of course, the wild tuna that roams the South Pacific seas.

 

Z is for Zebra

Z is for Moose by Kelly L Bingham & Paul O. Zelinsky

See what we did there? Bingham and Zelinsky are well-familiar with the animal alphabet: it inspires their brilliant and funny children’s book, Z is for Moose. When Zebra is tasked with getting all the right animals in all the right places, he considers it an easy task. Until, that is, Moose gets involved. You’ll notice we deliberately didn’t invite him to this party.

What did you think of this article? Did we miss a crucial book or body part? Let us know by emailing us at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

Images: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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