How to Make an Animal Speak

by Jack Martin on January 24, 2012

Charlotte spins her web, Wilbur shows up the other pigs at the County Fair, and young readers rejoice. They don’t even seem to care that animals can’t talk. Why do kids get to have all the fun?

After spending week after week writing online book reviews on stories about normal people that speak to other normal people about normal things, I needed to remind myself that pigs, rabbits, and panthers actually can talk too, if you really want them to. I recommend these books to anyone who needs to feel like a kid again, but needs something a little denser than Winnie-the-Pooh.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm book cover

Why did the English literary great, George Orwell, choose to write one of his best-known works about the lives of farm animals? Oh, it’s an allegory. That’s like a really big metaphor, right? Orwell’s society of animals rebel against the farmer Mr. Jones, and begin to run the farm themselves, led by the smartest pigs, Snowball and Napoleon. At first they’ve got a really good thing going, complete with their own set of animal laws, but we know where this is headed. What follows is their execution of a corrupt government full of mob mentality, back-stabbing, and greed.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down book cover

Picture your classic adventure: the hero sword-fighting his enemies on exotic terrain. Now just take away his sword and give him a set of adorable bunny ears and you’ve got Richard Adams’ Homer-style epic, Watership Down. When their home faces destruction, Hazel must lead a small group of rabbits on an odyssey in search of a new home. Along the way they encounter rival rabbits, hungry predators, and the most dangerous beast of all, humans. (Why are we always the bad guys?) Follow the fate of Hazel and his clever crew while hearing the stories of their rabbit Gods and folk heroes.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle book cover

No, I’m not suggesting you ditch the book idea all together and rent a Disney movie. The famous movie is based on the collection of fables by Rudyard Kipling. Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love short stories. Mowgli’s adventures with Baloo the bear and Bagheera the black panther are much darker and more complex in Kipling’s original prose. The stories follow Mowgli’s transformation from adolescent boy to adult animal, as well as other fables, the most stunning of which might be the heroic tale of Rikki-Tiki-Tavi, the mongoose that defends a human family against a pair of cobras.

There are plenty of talking animals out there waiting to tell their stories to us grown-ups. You will need to find book reviews of the others yourself, but after checking out these three (and the sequels to Watership Down and The Jungle Book), you might want to give The Wild Road, Fire Bringer, and Duncton Wood a read. Now don’t just sit around listening to me go on about talking animals; go hear for yourself what they’re saying.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele January 24, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Jack! As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking of Yann Martel. He uses animals to great effect in The Life of Pi and Beatrice & Virgil. And I’ve heard him speak–he’s got some interesting views on animals in general and reasons why he uses them as characters. Good stuff, my friend. 🙂

Jack Martin January 25, 2012 at 11:20 am


Yann Martel is cool. I really enjoyed Life of Pi. I’m with you, I think animal characters bring a very interesting element into stories. For me, it just lets me enjoy using my imagination a little. I love fiction, so if a story is too realistic, my imagination feels a little caged. When there are talking animals, I’m forced to suspend disbelief and then I can really enjoy the adventure.

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