Animal Companions: Happy 50th Birthday Koko the Gorilla

Koko, a western lowland gorilla, took the world by storm during her lifetime as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication. She became an international celebrity, with a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 spoken English words before her death in 2018. But perhaps more famously, Koko the gorilla showed empathy that was astonishing. Koko adored cats, and even ended up having her own, a cat Koko name All Ball that she loved and played with and held and babied. Sadly, All Ball passed away, and Koko mourned, whimpering and signing the word for “sad.” But it wasn’t just animals Koko felt a connection to; one human she bonded with was comedian Robin Williams, whom she also mourned after hearing about his passing. You can learn more about Koko’s life here:

On July 4, 2021, Koko would have turned 50, and to celebrate and remember the empathetic and loving gorilla, we are highlighting some animal companions in children’s literature that are important to and caring towards main characters — who frankly couldn’t manage life without them. From cats and dogs to flamefoxes and dragons and so much more (both alive and ghostly), this small list is filled with interspecies bonds and the support animals can supply for their humans.

Abe, Julie
Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch. 2020 (Middle Grade).
Eva Evergreen is determined to earn the rank of Novice Witch before she turns thirteen. If she doesn’t, she’ll lose her magic forever. It’s normally a simple test, but Eva only has a pinch of magic. She summons heads of cabbages instead of flowers and gets sunburns instead of the rain she calls for. And to make matters worse, whenever she overuses her magic, she falls asleep. When she lands in Auteri, the residents expect a powerful witch, not a semi-magical girl. Eva, along with Ember, her flamefox companion, who’s loyal, mischievous, and a bit of a troublemaker, must come up with a plan to aid Auteri and prove Eva’s worth.
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Beaton, Kate
The Princess and the Pony. 2015 (Picture Book).
Princess Pinecone knows exactly what she wants for her birthday this year: a big horse, a strong horse, a horse fit for a warrior princess. But Princess Pinecone gets a pony that’s a little…different. One that’s a bit too small, a bit too round — and one that happens to have an unfortunate and embarrassing problem when it gets too excited. Princess Pinecone is determined though and works hard to turn her pony into warrior material by training the pony for battle. The bond along the way makes Princess Pinecone realize that she may have gotten the perfect pony after all.
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DiTerlizzi, Angela
Illustrated by: Brendan Wenzel
Some Pets. 2016 (Picture Book).
Come one, come all, to the pet show! With dogs and cats, horses and chickens, hamsters and chinchillas — and many, many more — this book celebrates animal companions of all shapes and sizes. See who will be taking home the coveted Best in Show ribbon as you’re introduced to all sorts of pets: some that sit, some that stay, some that fetch and even some that play. What kind of pet is the perfect companion for you?
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Little Badger, Darcie
Elatsoe. 2020 (Teen).
Elatsoe lives in a slightly stranger America, one that still has homework and best friends and pistachio ice cream but has instead been shaped dramatically by magic and monsters and knowledge and legends. Elatsoe can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. Along with her ghost dog Kirby, who died of old age but Elatsoe brought back so she’d never have to miss him, Elatsoe works to uncover the gruesome secrets behind the murder and protect her family.
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Lacy, Josh
The Dragonsitter. 2012 (Children’s).
It had sounded so easy: Edward was going to look after Uncle Morton’s unusual pet for a week while he went on holiday. But Uncle Morton didn’t leave any instructions, and soon the fridge is empty, the curtains are blazing, and the postman is fleeing down the garden path. Written in epistolary form as Eddie sends emails to his (unresponsive) uncle, this chapter book explores ways in which some pets (especially unusual ones) may be a handful, and how humans can learn to corral their companions.
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Maas, Sarah J.
Throne of Glass. 2012 (Teen).
After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince and given an opportunity: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin in exchange for her freedom. Celaena’s opponents are thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire and she must beat them all in order to gain her freedom. This book is the first in a fantasy series with many different animal companions that play important roles to the story and the humans they travel alongside: Fleetfoot the excitable dog; Abraxos the wyvern that seems to act more like a lovable dog than the fierce beast he is; Farasha the horse whose name means butterfly but acts the complete opposite; and many more.
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Martin, Ann M.
Rain Reign. 2014 (Middle Grade).
Rose Howard has Asperger’s syndrome, and an obsession with homonyms (even her name is a homonym). She gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Rain was a lost dog Rose’s father brought home, and now Rose and Rain are practically inseparable, often home alone together, as Rose’s father spends most evenings away. Just as a storm hits, Rain goes missing. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.
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McQuinn, Anna
Illustrated by: Rosalind Beardshaw
Lola Gets a Cat. 2017 (Picture Book).
Lola wants a cat, but Mommy says taking care of a pet is a lot of work. So Lola does her homework. She finds books about cats and pet care at the library, and she and Mommy learn as much as they can, taking what they learn and practicing all of it on one of Lola’s stuffed kitties they pretend is real. When the time comes, Lola is allowed to pick out her new friend at an animal shelter. With patience and care, her kitten settles in at home. A picture book about the importance of understanding how to properly take care of an animal companion.
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Pau Preto, Nicki
Heart of Flames. 2020 (Teen).
This is the second book in a trilogy that follows four animages, people with magic that allows them to communicate with animals: Veronyca, who has finally become a Phoenix Rider, but instead of training wants to fly and defend the villages of Pyra; Tristan, a newly promoted Master Phoenix Rider with very different ideas on protecting their people and the empire compared to his father the commander; Sev, an animage in hiding who’s spying on the empire but is having difficulty maintaining his cover; and Val, Veronyka’s sister who’s determined to regain the empire she lost sixteen years ago, even if it means starting the war herself. Controlling families, webs of lies unraveling, and secrets being revealed abound in this series that begins with Crown of Feathers — with phoenixes, little birds, and other animals helping the animages along the way.
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Reynolds, Aaron
The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter. 2020 (Middle Grade).
Rex Dexter has a dream: to have a dog. Any pooch would be preferable, but a chocolate Labrador is the pinnacle, the dream of all dreams. So when Rex’s parents surprise him with a box on his birthday, a box with holes and adorable scratchy noises coming from inside, Rex is excited, ecstatic, and can’t wait to open the box. Only to find a chicken. One hour and fourteen minutes later, the chicken is dead, Rex is cursed, and wild animals are haunting Rex’s room. Rex’s uninvited guests are a chatty, messy bunch, and they need Rex to solve their mysterious deadly departures from the Middling Falls Zoo before it happens again.
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