By Penny Leigh Sebring
Kids often think of heroes as big, powerful people doing monumental deeds. True heroes, however, come in all shapes and sizes, and not all heroic acts are monumental.
These 10 picture books about animal heroes feature a diverse group of creatures, including dogs, a mule, bees, and even a brave little koala bear. Heroic traits such as kindness, cleverness, and acceptance are highlighted, along with more conventional heroic traits such as bravery and loyalty.
The true story of Sergeant Reckless by Patricia McCormack shines a spotlight on the heroic qualities of loyalty and tenacity. When a lieutenant in the United States Marine Corp happens upon an abandoned racehorse in war-torn Korea, he entices her to come to the military base. There he dubs her Private Reckless and feeds, cares for, and trains her. The little mare’s antics will keep kids riveted as she becomes a dependable and beloved member of the company, eventually retiring from the military as a staff sergeant with full military honors and two purple hearts.
This story by Vita Murrow, a multi-talented children’s author with a passion for literacy, is part of her True Stories About Animal Heroes series. Vita defines a hero as someone who breaks the mold, and her picture books about animal heroes clearly reflect that definition. Onyx takes place shortly after the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park. It follows the adventures of a small, shy wolf pup called Onyx, who is based on a real-life wolf in Yellowstone known as Wolf 8. Onyx not only becomes a pack leader, but passes on a new way of thinking to the next generation of wolves. This book includes many facts about wolves and their reintroduction to Yellowstone.
Vita Murrow once again delights young readers with another installment of her True Stories About Animal Heroes, this one about a little Koala named Fluffles. In Fluffles, we hear how the animal’s happy life is interrupted by a forest fire that destroys her home in the Australian outback. She escapes the forest fire by climbing a tall tree, but her hands are badly burned when she climbs down. When she and other Koalas like her were reunited, they cuddled up to one another for comfort, an act that also provided solace to those who witnessed it.
Animals in the White House have a long history, from George Washington’s menagerie of hounds, horses, a donkey, and a parrot, to President Joe Biden’s beloved German shepherds. Loyal White House pets often gain large followings and spend a great deal of time in the spotlight. The Obamas’ Portuguese water dog Bo was one such dog, with a large fan base from the time he made his first appearance in the White House until his death in May of 2021. Award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford’s depiction of Bo’s adoption and life in the White House is humorous and entertaining, much as Bo himself was. The bright, cheerful illustrations by Jeffery B Weatherford are sure to enchant young readers.
This is one of my new favorite children’s books, both for the dynamic illustrations and the subject matter. While most of the books on this list focus on one specific animal hero, this picture book shines the spotlight on an entire species of heroes. Author Shabazz Larkin wrote this love letter to bees to ensure that his two sons didn’t have the same fear of bees as he did. It does a fabulous job educating children about the purpose and personality of these exceptional insects. His ingenious book not only expresses why bees are heroes to the planet, but also includes a handy guide that informs the reader which bees are kind, and which are kind of mean.
When young Alex spies a mule eating collard greens from an old woman’s garden, he’s shocked. The old woman explains to the boy that Belle is a special mule: She’s considered a hero in Gee’s Bend, and she can have all the collard greens she wants. This beautifully rendered picture book was inspired by true events. It tells the tale of mules like Belle, who were a vital part of the civil rights movement, allowing a poor community of African Americans to defy prejudice in the 1960s. When local authorities attempt to block citizens of Gee’s Bend from voting, the community, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, thwarted the blockade by taking a long detour in mule-drawn wagons. When Dr. Martin Luther King was later assassinated, two mules, including old Belle, were chosen to pull his coffin through the streets.
No list of picture books about animal heroes would be complete without a story about the first dogs to survive a mission in outer space. My favorite rendition of this tale is Dogs in Space, written by astronaut Vix Southgate. This adorably illustrated picture book tells the true tale of Belka and Strelka, two stray dogs from Moscow, who are scooped up off the street and placed directly into training to be launched into space! The book describes the historic acts of the first two Earthlings to orbit the earth and return safely, plus also provides additional information about the history of the space race.
Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling was one of my favorite stories as a child. It was a tale about a brave little mongoose, an animal hero who protects a little boy and his family in India from dangerous poisonous snakes, from the tiny snake known as Karait to a pair of vicious cobras. This adaptation, by Jerry Pinkney, is a refined but complete version of the story. It removes some of the troublesome inaccuracies, such as the eyes of the mongoose turning red with anger, while retaining both the meaning and the feel of the original. The masterfully shaded illustrations are captivating and sure to keep children mesmerized.
This fictional story by Maria Gianferrari follows the antics of Moose, a dog who only wants to say hello, and never goodbye. Moose simply can’t fathom the idea of being anywhere other than at the side of his favorite little girl, Zara. No matter how many times he’s taken home, he keeps showing up at Zara’s school! Resourceful Zara eventually finds a way to allow Moose to visit her at school, by training him to be a reading dog. This charming picture book introduces children to the heroes known as therapy dogs, especially those that specialize as reading dogs, visiting schools to listen to children read. Reading dogs calm anxious readers and increase the kids’ literary confidence.
Award-winning author Margarita Engle, who works with search-and-rescue dogs, composed this poetic picture book. It describes the heroic dogs who rescue people that go missing in the wilderness, and how they are trained. The friendly, whimsical illustrations draw little ones in, while the simple language makes it easy for them to understand the material. The book discusses both facts about the dogs like those in the book, as well as advice for what to do if children ever found themselves lost.
Learning about other animals helps to strengthen children’s sense of wonder, develop empathy for other beings, and cultivate respect for the creatures around them. These 10 picture books about animal heroes also demonstrate a plethora of heroic traits—traits that kids can use to be heroes every day, such as kindness, understanding, and tenacity.
Share your favorite picture book about heroic animals in the comments!
Penny Leigh Sebring is an experienced freelance writer, neophyte speculative fiction author, and a gatherer of information and imaginary friends.