I sat down and read this book in one sitting. It’s hard to put down – not because it’s an edge-of-your-seat adventure or a nail-biting suspense but because of the simplicity of the story. In this short novel, the reader is transported to small village in Greece. The reader feels the excitement of Miki, a village boy whose life changes drastically one day when his grandfather surprises him with a donkey. Miki and his donkey are inseparable from day one and the two become best friends. Throughout the year, Mikis learns about caring for his donkey, controlling him (well, sort of). He discovers just how stubborn a a donkey can be. He also come to know him as a constant and faithful companion. The novel is not just about the boy’s relationship with his donkey, it’s also about Mikis and his grandfather, as well as Mikis and his classmates and teacher. It’s a light-hearted story with plenty of humor and amusing twists. Perfect for animal lovers. (for children ages 8-12, but could also be read to younger children as a read-aloud)
This book won the Batchelor Award in 2015, which is given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States. Mikis and the Donkey was originally published in the Netherlands in 2011 under the title, Mikis de ezeljongen. It was translated into English by Laura Watkinson.
What I love about this book is that it’s an animal story that doesn’t have a heart-wrenching or tragic ending – nobody dies and there is even a pleasant surprise at the end! I also enjoyed the multicultural aspect of the story – a glimpse of life on a small island in Greece. Finally, I enjoyed the fact that it’s an animal story that is not about a dog, a cat or a horse. The pencil drawings by Philip Hopman throughout the book bring this story to life and help children visualize life in Greece.
“The Dutch creators of Soldier Bear bring a lovely simplicity to this affecting picture of a close-knit Greek community. . . . The generous number of loosely drawn illustrations capture windswept landscapes, village life, and human character and diversity with equal aplomb. Visually inviting and easily read, this would also make a fine read-aloud for younger children.” Horn Book
“Pappou, those baskets make her sore and the strap is far too tight.”
“So what should I do, my boy?”
“You need to put a blanket under them. And you shouldn’t load the baskets so full. Tsaki’s not a truck.”
“Who said she was?”
“You did. And you said Tsaki’s a tractor on legs. But that’s not true. Oh, and she’s not allowed to work all this week.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“Well I’ll be…” said Grandpa. “Did the doctor really say that?”
“Ha, that’s easy for him to say. He drives around in a nice Ford.”
This is an animal story as well and is based on a true story. It tells the story of a young bear who is adopted by Polish soldiers in Iran. Voytek, the bear, then accompanies a Polish battalion onto the battle fields of Italy during World War II. Voytek’s mischief and antics often get him into trouble, but his presence is a lifeline for everyone whose life he touches as the bear and the soldiers journey through war torn Italy. I would recommend Soldier Bear to a slightly older audience (ages 10 and up) because it does depict some of the horrors of war. A moving story that would make an insightful supplemental reading to any study of World War II.
The deep bond between humans and animals is a popular theme in children’s literature. Here are a few other animal stories, some multicultural, some about unusual pets, that I highly recommend:
Shadrach by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1956) – This story, set in the Netherlands, is about a boy and his pet Rabbit. If you haven’t read DeJong, you are missing out. In Shadrach, Davie is enthralled with his new pet Rabbit which he names Shadrach. A beautiful story of that portrays the depth of a young child’s emotions and attachment to his pet. Meindert Dejong is an award-winning author of Newbery Medalist The Wheel on the School and The House of Sixty Fathers. Born in the Netherlands, Meindert’s family immigrated to the United States when he was 8 (Ages 9 to 12)
The White Elephant by Sid Fleischman (2006). Ever wondered where the term “white elephant” comes from? Inspired by a true story from Thailand, this is a fun and easy read about a young elephant boy named Run-Run and his white elephant, who outwit a prince. Written by the Newbery Award winning author of The Whipping Boy, this novel will take you on a ride, an elephant ride you will never forget.
Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight, illustrated by Marguerite Kirmse. (1940). Who hasn’t heard of Lassie – probably you have seen the movie. Yes, I will say it – the book is even better. Set in a small Yorkshire village in England during the Great Depression, Lassie is the story of a collie, a faithful companion to Joe. When Joe’s father looses his job, Lassie must be sold. After escaping his new owners multiple times to return home, Lassie is taken North to Scotland, a place so far and so remote that no dog would ever attempt an escape.
Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat (1961). The hilarious story of Wol and Weeps, two mischievous pet owls who terrorize the whole town of Saskatchewan, Canada with their crazy antics. Farley Mowat is a famous Canadian author who has written over 45 books.
Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North (1963) This is the classic tale of a boy and his pet raccoon, set in the woods of Wisconsin. It’s a moving tale that chronicles the first year of the raccoon’s life, but also a tale of a young boy’s journey through loss and grief. Rascal does have an emotional intensity to it, but there is plenty of adventure and humor throughout to make this an all-around amazing story.
The Yearling by Margery Kinnan Rawlings (1938) This classic tale, set in the late 1880s in Florida, is the winner of the Pulitzer prize. I had put off reading this book, until recently, partly because I dismissed it as one of those “sad animal stories.” So when I listened to this book on audio, I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the language, the poetic descriptions of plants, trees, birds and beasts, the depiction of the family’s struggle for survival, the raw emotions of young Jody. A must-read! Don’t dismiss this one – the story will linger on long after the last words are read and the book is put aside. (for ages 10+)
“He lay down beside the fawn. He put one arm across its neck. It did not seem to him that he could ever be lonely again.”
― Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling
The Year of the Panda by Miriam Schlein (1990) – Focusing on the environment and endangered animals, this multicultural story, set in China, is about a young boy who finds an abandoned baby panda in the woods near his family’s farm. So begins Lu Yi’s adventures as he nurses the young cub back to life and tries to solve the mystery of the young cub’s mother’s disappearance.