From an animal's perspective

Animal-loving middle graders and middle schoolers will appreciate these six novels, all featuring fascinating creatures — and told from the animals' own perspectives.

The Hungry Place
by Jessie Haas 
Intermediate, Middle School    Boyds Mills/Boyds Mills & Kane    190 pp.    g 
10/20    978-1-68437-794-7    $17.99 

Princess, born a champion Connemara pony at Highover Farm, has all the best care from her doting, elderly owner Roland. In a separate but linked narrative, Rae, a scrappy eight-year-old with the love of horses “printed on her heart,” sees Princess at a horse show and is immediately smitten — but any kind of horse or pony is out of her family’s reach, let alone a champion like Princess. Some years pass, and Princess racks up ribbons while Rae’s grandmother, Gammer, teaches Rae how to work for her dreams: saving, seizing opportunities to learn, never giving up. Dark clouds loom for Princess, though, when Roland has a stroke and his unscrupulous employees steal everything of value and put Princess out to pasture with a herd of rough-and-tumble ponies. With no one feeding them and winter approaching, the ponies eat the grass in their enclosure down to the dirt. Tender-hearted readers (that is, all horse-loving readers) will weep at Princess’s peril and, even more, her loneliness, told from a pony’s-eye view. In Rae’s part of the story, they’ll cheer Gammer’s wisdom, compassion, and good advice; friends Sam and Tully’s emotional and practical support; and Rae’s persistence and faith in her dream. Readers’ sympathetic agony is eventually replaced with tears of happiness as Haas brings the story around to a rousing happily-ever-after ending. ANITA L. BURKAM 

A Cat Story
by Ursula Murray Husted; illus. by the author 
Primary, Intermediate    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    192 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-06-293205-1    $22.99 
Paper ed.  978-0-06-293204-4    $12.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-06-293206-8    $10.99 

This graphic novel, set on the island of Malta, is the story of stray cats who spend their days wandering the wet docks and eating fish scraps to survive. Cilla, longing for a more stable home, declares she will search for the mythical “quiet garden,” which stems from a legendary kitten story; here live humans “with kind eyes who never step on our tails” and who welcome all cats. Cilla’s friend Betto dismisses the story as “silly” but joins Cilla so that she doesn’t have to travel alone. Their journey is perilous, and they meet curious characters along the way, including a feline who speaks in riddles and a herd of cats who essentially try to imprison them. Cilla is initially disappointed in what she learns about the garden but eventually realizes that “there is a measure of truth in all good stories.” The tales the creatures hear on their journey are told through re-creations of classic art (noted in the book’s back matter) by Renoir, da Vinci, Zhu Ling, and Randolph Caldecott. Husted has a loose, energetic line that reflects both the cats’ graceful movements and their tough lives of scrimping. She captures the Maltese landscape with detail and a scrappy elegance. An enjoyable story, especially for cat-lovers, about how home is where you make it. JULIE DANIELSON 

A Whale of the Wild 
by Rosanne Parry; illus. by Lindsay Moore 
Intermediate    Greenwillow    336 pp.    g 
9/20    978-0-06-299592-6    $17.99 

The whale of the title could apply to either of two narrators. Vega, a late-adolescent orca whale, is just coming into her own as a wayfinder. The alternating voice is that of her younger and impulsive brother Deneb. Their family is part of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community that lives in the Salish Sea, an area of stunning ecological richness and diversity in the Pacific Northwest. The community is threatened by water pollution, noise pollution, climate change, and reduced populations of Chinook salmon. When there’s an earthquake with its resulting tsunami, Vega and Deneb become separated from their pod. Parry (A Wolf Called Wander) presents orca life convincingly, using fresh language. Tides are Push and Pull. Directions are warmward and coldward. Echolocation is click-stream. Connection between family members is maintained by the repeated reassurance, “I’m beside you,” a refrain that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as the characters try to deal with the fracturing of their world. The story contains gracefully integrated information on such varied topics as the eel (“all teeth and patience”) and the poison taste of an oil spill, without ever losing narrative momentum or emotional drive. Back matter gives clear explanations of terms (krill are “pink, opaque, and the size and weight of a paper clip”), suggestions for further reading, and practical tips for young readers on how to help save this precious environment. Detailed black-and-white illustrations beautifully support a powerful portrait of nature under threat. SARAH ELLIS 

The Last Rabbit 
by Shelley Moore Thomas; illus. by Julie Mellan 
Intermediate    Lamb/Random    288 pp.    g
2/21    978-0-593-17353-4    $16.99 
Library ed.  978-0-593-17354-1    $19.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17355-8    $9.99 

An introductory poem explains that Hybrasil, the mythical island west of Ireland once charted on actual nautical maps, was said to be occupied, during its last documented visit, by a magician and four silver-gray rabbits. From this folkloric mixture of the real, the mistaken, and the whimsical, Thomas concocts a fantasy of a rabbit named Albie who used to be a human girl. Hybrasil is sinking back into the sea, and the magician wants Albie to leave the island so that she may choose her destiny and change back into a girl, as her three sisters did before her. The author is in no hurry to show her hand — it takes several chapters, filled with trenchant rabbit observations and visits to the vast, poetry-reciting Sea, before we learn that the four sisters were sent to the island at their magic-wielding mother’s direction after she and their father were killed in World War II; a few more chapters still before we discover that the magician is in fact the girls’ grandfather. It is in hopes of saving him from the sinking island that Albie agrees to depart. There’s an atmosphere of cryptic connections and enigmatic forces at play just outside the story’s frame, and questions of loss, destiny, and love expand through the heartwarming tale. Soft grayscale cartoons (final art unseen) of Disney-esque rabbits offer a child-friendly entrée to the fantasy. ANITA L. BURKAM 

Little Bird
by Cynthia Voigt; illus. by Lynne Rae Perkins 
Intermediate    Greenwillow    336 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-299689-3    $16.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299691-6    $8.99 

In her latest animal fantasy, Voigt returns to the Old Davis Farm, a territory she has explored in three previous books (most recently Toaff’s Way, rev. 9/18). Little Bird is a curious crow who doesn’t quite fit in. She takes on the task of finding a missing necklace to which the crows attribute their good luck. Her quest takes her outside her usual territory, where she encounters new situations, new creatures, dangers, and a dark night of the soul. There are threats and a near-deadly attack on Little Bird, but the focus here isn’t “nature red in tooth and claw” but rather communication, the interactions between characters as they connect, suffer from misunderstandings, make jokes, and expand one another’s horizons through storytelling. Part of the fun lies in decoding Little Bird’s descriptions of humans. What would you make of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a schoolyard if you’d never seen one before? Voigt is a master at creating animal characters that are convincing and compelling in themselves while simultaneously nudging us to take a wry look at ourselves. SARAH ELLIS 

Alice’s Farm: A Rabbit’s Tale
by Maryrose Wood; illus. by Christopher Denise 
Intermediate    Feiwel    368 pp.    g 
9/20    978-1-250-22455-2    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-250-22456-9    $9.99 

A folksy omniscient narrator tells the tale of two families, rabbit and human, that share a territory. Young cottontail Alice and her brother Thistle are enjoying their first spring in their home of Burrow. Humans Carl, his baby sister, and his hapless idealistic back-to-the-land parents have just moved to a nearby country farm. Carl and the bunnies find a common goal in foiling a rapacious real estate developer by ensuring the viability of the farm as Carl and the rabbits, with a little help from their friends (fox, bald eagle, family dog), invent and carry out various schemes. As an animal fantasy, this lies somewhere between Watership Down and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, with detailed and fascinating rabbit world-building à la Adams (“Rabbits have four birthdays a year, one for each season, so the kits of her litter were three months old in human time”) and cozy, cadenced prose à la Potter (“brave the meadow, dodge the dog, outwit the farmer, and tunnel beneath the garden fence”). The storytelling is relaxed and digressive, the humor genially satiric, and the dialogue sparky. Fans of Cynthia Voigt’s Young Fredle (rev. 3/11) will feel right at home, and readers of Charlotte’s Web will delight in several sly echoes. An excellent choice for a family or classroom read-aloud. SARAH ELLIS 

From the July 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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