Top 5 books in which humans communicate with animals

Published on: 10 July 2024

Wildsmith author Liz Flanagan recommends her favourite stories about the humananimal bond. 

I grew up on stories of talking animals, so there are many books that have inspired my imagination in writing the Wildsmith series, along with my love of wild places, my experience fostering kittens, and the many dear pets who’ve shared my life. I haven’t included some of these beloved classic children’s books where there is a cast of ‘speaking’ animal characters and humans are the off-stage baddies. InsteadI’ll focus here on stories where the protagonist can talk to an animal but not everyone else can, or where the animal’s speech is imagined in exactly the way a reader might hope..  

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce 

I adore this book and everything Tamora Pierce has written – and I realised on re-reading that this had been the biggest inspiration for my approach with Wildsmith. It wasn’t conscious, as it had been years since I read Wild Magic, but its influence is clear. In this story, the protagonist Daine is traumatised by a terrible attack in which her family was slain. She finds work assisting the royal horsewoman and Daine’s gift of speaking to animals begins to grow and develop in ways that prove vital in the dangerous times ahead. I love Pierce’s knowledge of animals, her tenderness and generosity to all living creatures, and her incredible worldbuilding and pacy plotting.  

An example of a brilliantly gripping opening, as the surviving wild creatures work together to break the protagonist Kester out of a prison-like institution in a post-apocalyptic world. A terrible virus has wiped out most living creatures – fish, birds, animals – leaving people under the control of a sinister corporation, afraid of any surviving wildlife in case they catch the disease too. Kester has the gift of speaking to animals, though he doesn’t speak verbally to humans. And in the hands of this talented writer, a whole cast of wonderful creatures is brought convincingly to life. Who’d have thought even a cockroach could be charismatic and memorable 

Abhorsen by Garth Nix  

Although it turns out that the Disreputable Dog and Mogget, the ‘cat-shaped servant’, are in fact magical beings of vast power and not a dog or cat, respectively, they do pleasingly behave very much as you’d expect a dog or a cat to behave, and their speech is beautifully imagined throughout this series. I’m especially fond of the Dog, whose loyalty and courage in interspersed with all the barking, hunting, sniffing and wagging of an ordinary dog. In this novel, the Dog meets a fate which is utterly satisfying and deeply heart-tugging at the same time.  

Oh, Todd and his dog Manchee, what can I say? I still remember reading the opening pages of this wonderful novel and realising immediately that it was superb and different from anything I’d read before. I was hooked. To me, this is the perfect depiction of a dog’s voice – that single-minded enthusiasm, energy and loyalty leaps off the page… I’m trying very hard not to say any more for fear of spoilers – just go and read this, now! 

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb  

Although this isn’t marketed for young people, it could be a gateway series for a teenage reader who is ready to explore older fantasy. The bond between these two outsiders royal assassin Fitz and the wolf Nighteyesis one of my favourite relationships in fiction, full stop! It’s beautifully and persuasively written. Hobb’s exploration of the limits of their mutual understanding, their capacity to hurt and forgive each other, the way each changes the other, so that Fitz becomes wolfish, and Nighteyes grows accustomed to human ways: all of this is masterful and convincing. Plus, the voice of Nighteyes is so distinctive, dry and playful – who could possibly resist? 

The Wildsmith series by Liz Flanagan is out now.

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