A recent study has pointed out that readers of fiction have better empathic abilities. And what better way to be introduced to seeing the world through different eyes, than by vicariously experiencing these things as you wander page by page in various books.

Photos by Anna Gamboa
(Books courtesy of National Bookstore, Cubao Superstore)

Here, we list 10 classics (in no particular order) and throw in a few more, if you’d like to rediscover stories you may have missed out on.

1. Watership Down by Richard Adams – A dystopian saga that predated Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, TV series or graphic novels like The Walking Dead, and movies like Mad Max, cloaked in an almost-harrowing tale of survival. These aren’t your typical fluffy bunnies named Flopsy and Mopsy―these are self-aware creatures who understand the nature of “kill or be killed” and devise plans to get out of literal and metaphorical snares set for them by adversaries. It even has quasi-roleplaying game archetypes in the narrative such as a seer, some warriors, (a reluctant) leader, and thieves.

2. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell – If Charles Dickens had been moved to write a story about a good-natured, spirited and beautiful horse who has the bad luck to be passed from a negligent owner to an abusive one before finally attaining his idyllic forever home, this would be it. Often attributed as the precursor of the pony genre for books and one of the leading reasons young readers become aware of animal rights, or at least become cognizant of the humane treatment of animals.

3. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – a classic bestseller featuring anthropomorphic rabbits prancing round in cute clothes, illustrating the consequences of naughty actions (possibly inherited from his father, who was eventually “put into a pie by Mrs. Mc Gregor”), this little furry rapscallion gets into all sorts of trouble with Mr. Mc Gregor and narrowly evades becoming pie stuffing himself.

4. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien – Before enchanting many children with the animated adaptation, the book was a schoolchild’s nail-biting, suspense-filled story involving super intelligent rats on the run from a lab, and how they help a mouse and her family escape disaster. Life is getting closer to emulating art, as a 2013 study revealed that rodents implanted with human glial cells in their brains showed more intelligence.

5. Socks by Beverly Cleary – anyone who’s ever felt displaced by the arrival of a new sibling can relate with the feline protagonist of this story. Socks, the beloved fur baby of a young couple, gets bumped out of the limelight when they celebrate the arrival of their son. Apart from teaching kids the do’s and don’ts of keeping a cat, the novella unabashedly shows a protagonist wallowing in misery and emotional eating (with weighty consequences).

6. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – Possibly grittier than Black Beauty, this is the tale of a noble dog that suffers one horrible owner after another, while descending from a life of privilege to a hard-scrabble existence literally fighting for pack dominance in the Klondike during the fevered Gold Rush in the late 1800s that captured America’s imagination. London illustrates that cruelty and beauty can happen side by side in the wilderness, kindness rewarded, while negligence reaps its fitting fate.

7. Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion – for a dose of simple and effective storytelling, look up Betty White’s read-aloud version on YouTube as the illustrations unfold before your eyes. A frisky little terrier, a white dog with black spots, goes on the lam to avoid a bath after burying the scrub brush in the back yard. Eventually accumulating so much grime that he looks like a black dog with white spots, his owners don’t recognize him, and the canny canine finally retrieves the brush and dashes for the dreaded bath. At least it’s one story involving a dirty Harry with a happy ending for everyone.

8. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss – Two children deal with the mischief and mayhem wrought by a cat in a striped hat that entertains them while their mom is away. A great argument for hiring proper babysitters, because anything can happen when two kids are left to their own devices (and blame an anthropomorphic, talking, chapeau-sporting cat).

9. The Cat Painter by Becky Bravo – a local children’s tale published by Adarna Books and annually staged by grade schoolers at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School-QC, this playful story tells of how cats originally came in basic white, black and yellow―that is, until a more avant-garde cat painter came along to experiment with different color combinations and patterns.

10. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot – a whimsical collection of poems that’s the basis for the blockbuster musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Apart from being used as fodder for West End/Broadway hits, lines from some of the poems have been used in films like “Logan’s Run” as recited by classic/comic actor Peter Ustinov.

Hungry for more books to devour? Here are a few more selections for you to try out, although some may be harder to find in bookstores:

 Esio Trot by Roald Dahl: Soon coming to the silver screen with Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench in the leads, the story of an ingenious man finding a way to his lady love’s heart by way of her pet tortoise is a fun read (especially when you attempt to read the incantations spelled backwards).

 Babar by Jean de Brunhoff: While seen by some as pro-colonization propaganda, not many can resist the charm of a noble little elephant who is adopted by a human being after being orphaned, and grows up to be the chosen ruler of his kingdom.

 Olivia by Ian Falconer: A charming anthropomorphic piglet embarks on many fanciful adventures that allow little girls (and boys) to giggle and entertain the possibility of making their daydreams a reality.

 Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey: The cheeky simian any precocious preschooler can relate to brings cheer and fun—and often pushes many young children to upgrade their reading skills to find out the next scrape George gets into.

 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: the author of Stuart Little is better known for spinning a tale about how a spelling spider saves the bacon of a little pig named Wilbur.

 All books in James Herriot’s veterinary series: These semi-autobiographical books, which include the omnibus collections “All Creatures Great and Small” and “The Lord God Made Them All” are simply yet beautifully written anecdotes of life as a young veterinarian in pre- and post-World War II Yorkshire.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s January 2016 issue.