9 books about animals, nature and protest to inspire us to protect our world

Published on: 14 July 2021 Author: Linda Newbery

This Book is Cruelty Free author Linda Newbery is passionate about protecting our planet, so here she shares nine books that could inspire young readers to make a difference...

The front cover of This Book is Cruelty Free

Books shape lives. We know that, so here I've included two books that were early influences on my views of animals and humans and how we interact.

It's ever more clear that we must urgently protect the natural world and its habitats, and that our lives and those of animals are interlinked. In This Book is Cruelty Free, I examine the ways in which our daily choices affect animals and the environment, and how we can minimise the harm we do by making compassionate choices.

My recommendations here include books about appreciating wildlife and natural surroundings, and - on a different track - books about protest, and how we can use our voices to fight cruelty and injustice.

The front cover of Black Beauty

Illustration: Ruth Brown

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is one of the first books I loved as a child - first in an abridged version (I vividly remember the illustrations) and then the full text. It's an unforgettable, classic story inspired by Anna Sewell's compassion for horses and despair at the cruelties inflicted on them in Victorian London. Poor Ginger's fate still makes me cry.

Bambi by Felix Salten isn't nearly so well known as the Disney film it inspired. Like Black Beauty, it encourages us to empathise with animals and to see humans from their point of view - and most humans don't come out of it well, killing and maiming wild animals for sport. Bambi learns to survive, but also to fear humankind.

If your encounter with Bambi is through the Disney film or the spin-off books, it's well worth searching out this more serious, occasionally harrowing read.

The front cover of A Street Dog Named Pup

Illustration: Levi Pinfold

In A Street Dog Named Pup, published this year, Gill Lewis has written what's already described as a classic - a Black Beauty for our age. Cruelly abandoned, German Shepherd cross Pup falls into the company of other street dogs and learns survival skills, confronting many dangers.

Without being in the least heavy-handed, Gill Lewis raises many issues about dog-owning and breeding: abandonment, puppy-farming, the deliberate selective breeding of flat-faced dogs that results in breathing problems, and the horror of organised dog-fighting. It's a gripping, moving story.

For the solace and inspiration of the natural world, I highly recommend Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty. He records his fifteenth year through close and eloquent observations of the natural world, where he finds both intense joy and escape from his social difficulties; open about his autism, he refers to being badly bullied at school. We'll surely see more of him in future as an advocate and writer: 'This churning in me, it's got to go somewhere.'

The front cover of Back to Nature

Pic: Sterre Verbokkem

Back to Nature: How to Love Life – And Save It by wildlife presenter Chris Packham and his stepdaughter Megan McCubbin is chatty and often impassioned, springing from their lockdown social media project, the Self Isolating Bird Club. Their book combines scientific facts with a plea to readers to assess our own behaviour and what we buy and consume, and to look critically at organisations and companies - and governments - that put profit over sustainability.

The Lost Words, with evocative poems by Robert Macfarlane and gorgeous illustrations by Jackie Morris, also encourages us to look closely at what's around us. The beauty of this book is that it focuses on plants and birds most of us have seen - dandelions, starlings, conkers, acorns - as well as the more elusive kingfishers and otters. Nature is all around us, even in cities, if we look for it.

An illustration from The Lost Words of birds by a dandelion

Illustration: Jackie Morris

On the subject of protest and the need for change, I've chosen two books about racial injustice, both with Jamaican protagonists and set in the 18th century. Alex Wheatle's young adult novel Cane Warriors is a necessarily brutal but gripping story based on a slave rebellion, Tacky's War. Frank about the horrors of slave ownership and repression, it manages to offer some hope of change for main character Moa.

Catherine Johnson's engrossing story for younger readers, Freedom, tells the story of Nat, whose work as a garden apprentice sees him sent from Jamaica to London, where he believes he'll be free. He finds to his dismay that slaves are still regarded as 'property' in England as elsewhere, but in his bid for escape he meets initiators of the anti-slavery movement and finds hope for a better future.

The front cover of Protest

Protest! is a brilliant collaboration by sisters Alice and Emily Haworth-Booth, subtitled, 'How people have come together to change the world'. With appealing illustrated spreads, it dramatises well-known protests such as Votes for Women, the American Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and Gandhi's Salt March, while also including many around the world that most of us won't have heard of.

Practical advice shows that protesting doesn't have to mean barricading streets or getting arrested; it can take the form of art, writing, theatre and using your voice to influence others. Essential for every school library, and a great gift for any young person who sees the need for a fairer world.

Maybe, in this age of Black Lives Matter and growing awareness of the climate emergency, habitat destruction, social injustices around the world and the urgent need to take better care of our planet and all its inhabitants, young people are more likely than ever to seek change for the better.

This Book is Cruelty Free by Linda Newbery is out now, published by Pavilion Books.

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