Classic Books That Take You Into the World of Animals

Natural lessons abound in classic books.

Throughout history, many prominent teachers and authors have used fiction to describe our relationship with nature—the joy it brings, how we affect it, and the responsibilities we have toward it. Many were self-taught naturalists while others held academic titles. But they all shared a common view that, if humanity is to evolve, we need to take a closer look at how we interact with the environment and determine areas for improvement, especially when it comes to our relationship with wildlife. 

When winter weather settles in, we retreat indoors to keep warm and cozy. It’s a good opportunity to spend some time reading and reflecting. To that end, we present two classics: The Song of the Cardinal, by Gene Stratton-Porter, and The Year of the Whale, by Victor B. Scheffer. Both stories are told from the point of view of an animal. The strength of these books is that the authors present the narratives in such a way that opens the door for important conversations about the preservation of creatures both great and small.

The Song of the Cardinal was written in 1903 and became an overnight best seller. To this day, the novel continues to delight readers. A woman ahead of her time, Stratton-Porter wrote twenty books and countless magazine articles read by nearly fifty million people. The novel is about a special cardinal that is “bigger, redder, and sings more beautifully than any other bird.” As he sings, an old farmer and his wife begin to listen and even try to interpret the songs. The farmer becomes so enamored with the bird that he talks to it and vows to protect it from hunters. The book reveals Stratton-Porter’s feelings about nature. She clearly intends to make the reader sit up and take notice of how our attitudes and behavior can impact wild animals. Her method of delivery is far from preachy, though. Instead, she crafts beautiful prose that takes the reader into the cardinal’s world—a world rich with scented flowers and the need to propagate its own species.

The Song of the Cardinal promises to have you discovering the world anew from “a bird’s point of view.” 

The Year of the Whale, by marine biologist Victor B. Scheffer, was written in 1969 and won the John Burrough’s Medal for Best Natural History Book. Originally from Manhattan, Kansas, Scheffer moved to Washington, where he received a doctorate in zoology and co-founded the Washington chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society.

The Year of the Whale shares the experiences and trials of a young sperm whale during the first year of his life as he traverses the ocean.

What is especially valuable about this novel is that Scheffer weaves real facts about whales into his fictional story, which helps give readers an authentic view of the animal’s life. As one reviewer noted, the book provides a much greater understanding of these magnificent creatures along with an empathy for them. Scheffer succeeds in showing us that these amazing creatures are unique, beautiful, and worthy of our respect.—By Matt Nelson