Book Angel Booktopia welcomes Simon David Eden today to share recommendations for books featuring animals. Terrific picks for any animal lover or fans of Michael Morpurgo.
The initial inspiration for The Savage Kingdom came from my daughter Millie, who – aged around 10 – began to ask some really smart, challenging questions about life and the universe which I wanted to try to answer as best I could. I thought if I could weave some of those answers into a ‘story’ I could deal with some weighty issues like bullying and bereavement and destruction of the rain-forest, while also shining a light on some of the good stuff: unconditional love, respect for others, self-belief, hope. It didn’t get me off the hook however, as I took so long to start writing the book! It didn’t really take off until our rescue cat Bagherra entered our lives. It was observing his relationship with Millie that became the glue for the whole thing and set the tone for the tale and the two central characters Drue and Will-C. I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to open the story very small, very familiar, just a kid and a pet which everyone can relate to, before taking the reader off, on a rip-roaring, page-turning fantasy adventure.
Given I grew up with wonderful stories like Aesop’s Fables, The Jungle Book, and The Lion The Witch & The Wardrobe it’s perhaps no surprise that I’d eventually turn to writing fantasy featuring animal characters. But that’s not to say they can be any less well-researched or developed than human characters. One still needs to give them layers and nuances and hidden depths. Subtext is everything. Actually, quite often you can plumb even greater depths and make very challenging subject matter more accessible through the device, as you are one step removed. Think of Art Spiegelman’s extraordinary graphic novel Maus, or George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece Animal Farm or even Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis.
And finally a ‘dad’ fact! Did you know that scientists estimate there are 8.7 million species on the Earth, and we’ve only encountered and identified about 1.2 million of those. Amazing isn’t it! That’s an awful lot of animals we know nothing about, and yet we continue to destroy their natural habitat and drive them to extinction in the name of profit and progress. Besides being a fun and gripping read (I hope!) if The Savage Kingdom encourages even one reader to do their bit to make the world a better, more sustainable, more harmonious place for all the creatures that share it, the long hard slog to getting the tale out into the world will have been more than worth it!
And if you’ve an appetite for more novels that feature animals/animal-human relationships, these are a few all-time classics that I think are very special:
‘The Call of the Wild’ – Jack London (pub 1903)
It’s a harsh, often brutal tale of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie who is stolen from his home and sold into a slavery of sorts as a sled dog. It’s an epic journey (they get me every time) and a story of survival against terrible odds, cruelty and hardship, but one that’s ultimately about redemption and the power of love and trust. I remember reading it by torchlight in bed under the covers, and though I’m sure the nature vs nurture allegorical theme was lost on me at the time, so potent was the tale I was completely transported to another land, and could feel the bitter cold and crunch of the snow and the hot breath of the panting dogs. Wonderful stuff.
‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ – Richard Bach (pub 1972)
The acclaimed fantasy/sci-fi author Ray Bradbury once said of this book that it does 2 things: ‘It gives me Flight and makes me Young’. I couldn’t agree more, but I’d add a third: It makes me Smile. And a forth: It makes me Cry. In a good way, as it’s so simple yet so profound and beautiful. I picked it up again recently having not read it in maybe 20 years, and there’s no question that it had an influence on The Savage Kingdom. You could say it was my introduction to quantum physics before I even knew such a thing existed. There’s a passage that reads: ‘you’ve got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom … your whole body from wingtip to wingtip is nothing more than thought itself.’ For that last line alone, I owe Mr Bach a debt of enormous gratitude.
‘Red Ruff’ – H Mortimer Batten (pub 1937)
Another book I read and re-read when I was still in short trousers. The amazing life story of fox as told by a man who perhaps inspired an entire generation to think more deeply about Nature, so passionate and knowledgeable was he about the great outdoors. Again a massive influence on my future writing career, as it was the first novel I became totally immersed in, that seamlessly blends well-researched fact with finely crafted page-turning fiction. Though he seems to be largely forgotten today, he’s a true literary star for me, and I’d highly recommend this tale for any young reader aged 8+