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Preparing for pets: Books to help children

Are you considering a pet for the family but not sure your child is ready? Do you want your children to understand the responsibilities and empathy needed when adopting a pet?

Get your kiddos thinking! Read good books about pets with them. Making the time to read with a child already has many known benefits, from building a stronger relationship to helping with basic speech and communication skills. When you read good pet books with children, you also can help them learn about animal behavior, patience, kindness, and humor.

So how do you find good books about pets? What should you look for?

Megan Schliesman, librarian at the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it is important that the books entertain and educate without being didactic.

“I would choose books that offer a range of the types of pets and a child character getting used to and coming to love his or her distinctive animal, even if it’s not the exact kind of pet the child thought he or she wanted,” she advises.

Among her recommendations are:

  • Dogs and Cats, by author-illustrator Steve Jenkins. This is a cleverly designed introduction to the two most popular types of household pets using cut-and-torn paper collages.
  • Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door, by Hilary McKay and illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Animal-loving Lulu is determined to improve the lifestyle of George, the pet rabbit next door, by educating his uninterested pet owner.
  • The Pet Project, by Lisa Wheeler with illustrations by Zachariah Ohora. Schliesman says this is more tongue-in-cheek and yet can be applied to thinking through the appeal of various animals. In this pet “research guide” that is anything but warm and fuzzy, a little girl investigates animals she might want for a pet and finds they all need care and attention—something that may not be for her.
  Nicole Forsyth, President and CEO of RedRover, a nonprofit organization with a mission to bring animals out of crisis and strengthen the bond between people and animals, suggests looking for books that show and don’t tell, are beautifully illustrated, and have a humane theme.
  • Orville, A Dog’s Story, by Haven Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. One of Forsyth’s favorites, this book features an abandoned dog, Orville, who is found by others but then tied up outside. He eventually finds his person.

“The writing and artwork is beautiful. Orville is an 'ugly' black dog, which I love,” says Forsyth. “He reminds me of my black dog, who was the love of my life. I still have a hard time not crying when I read that book and think of my dog.”

 Among her other favorites are:

  • Max Talks to Me, by Claire Buchwald and illustrated by Karen Ritz. A boy learns that caring behaviors create a good relationship.
  • Ginger Finds a Home, written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake. A girl uses love and patience to win over a stray cat.
  • The Forgotten Rabbit, by Nancy Furstinger and illustrated by Nancy Lane. This book looks at friendship and responsibility.
  • Oh, Theodore, by Susan Katz and illustrated by Stacey Schuett. The relationship between a boy and his guinea pig is examined through poems and endearing illustrations.
  • Millie and Cupcake, by Mildred Potash with illustrations by Jesse J. Jones. This book highlights the unexpected bond between a girl and a rat.

“And, of course, there is always the old standby, Black Beauty, the 1877 novel by Anna Sewell—probably the main reason I’ve never sold or given away any horses I’ve ever had,” Forsyth added.

Forsyth suggests that you look for books that offer accurate animal behavior with as little anthropomorphizing as possible. When the books do show inaccurate behaviors, like smiling chickens, for example, call the child’s attention to it.

“We might ask them why they thought the illustrator decided to put smiles on their faces and how else might we tell if a chicken is happy. We ask lots of open-ended questions like, 'How do you think this dog feels in this picture? How can you tell?' We call their attention to specific details, like ear and tail positions, to help build kids' awareness about how to read emotions in animals, which is necessary for empathy.”

In Max Talks to Me, says Forsyth, children learn how a dog and person can communicate, while critically reflecting on questions like ‘Why would we listen,’ and learning what it takes to keep a pet healthy, happy, and safe.

“If you ask [children] what does Max need to be healthy, happy, and safe,” she says, “they’re quick to rattle off their answers: ‘He needs to go on walks.’ ‘He needs love.’ They love sharing their ideas. They’re engaged. Pets can be the first relationship kids have control over; therefore, practicing positive relationship skills with pets early on is critical.”

Forsyth says it is also important to read books that address aspects of animal neglect and cruelty, so children can learn how animals might feel in these situations and choose to act differently.

“Rather than tell kids how to treat animals, we ask them questions. Kids in classrooms we work with may have dogs chained up or family members who fight dogs, but rather than say ‘That is bad’ and ‘That is illegal,’ we invite them to talk about it and listen to what their peers think.”

Looking for more pet books to help youngsters learn about responsibility, compassion, and empathy before getting a pet? Check out RedRover’s list of suggested books. To learn more about how to build empathy and compassion in children through pet books, review RedRover’s free online guide.

Maureen Blaney Flietner is an award-winning freelance writer (mbfcommunications.com) as well as a professional photographer and artist (mbfimages.com). She has been “mom” to several dogs, cats, and horses over the years.

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