Saying goodbye to furry and feathered creatures with help from Mister Rogers, Judith Viorst, Margaret Wise Bown and others
By Janice Harayda
A popular Easter tradition during my childhood was bringing home baby chicks that died soon after the holiday in a suburban basement. This practice may survive mainly in all those yellow marshmallow candies made in the unlucky chicks’ image. But other kinds of animal deaths abound in this season of new life. Some good books about the casualties:
Mister Rogers’ First Experiences: When a Pet Dies (Putnam, $5.99, paperback). By Fred Rogers. Photographs by Jim Judkis. Ages 3–6.
Fred Rogers (1928–2003) did more than host the popular PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also wrote “First Experiences,” a picture book series that offers children a gentle introduction to situations such as moving, making friends, and going to the doctor. When a Pet Dies is typical. Rogers speaks directly to children about how they may feel about losing a pet and answers basic questions such as, “What is dying?” His message is that when sad things happen, “the best place to be is near someone you love … someone who can understand how you are feeling.”
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Aladdin, $5.99, paperback). By Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. Ages 4–9.
Many books talk “at” children about the loss of pets. Not The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, a lovely picture book by the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It involves a boy who grieves for his dead cat and finds comfort in his mother’s suggestion that he say “ten good things about Barney” at the backyard burial. Viorst’s poetic but clear text includes a conversation between the boy and his friend, Annie, about whether heaven exists. He says no, she says yes, and the book suggests that both have a right to their views. Blegvad’s superb black-and-white drawings add layers of emotion and touches of whimsy that show that sadness doesn’t mean you can never have fun.
The Accident (Clarion, varied prices). By Carol Carrick. Pictures by Donald Carrick. Ages 5-9.
Child psychologists will tell you that a death, if always upsetting, is typically more traumatic if the child has witnessed it, partly because it increases the potential for guilt. And The Accident isn’t just an excellent picture book — it is one of the few that deals with such a situation. The authors use a well-written text and subdued art to tell the story of a boy who sees his beloved dog killed by a pick-up truck while they are walking along a highway. Sad and angry, Christopher keeps replaying the accident in his mind, trying to pretend it didn’t happen, until his sympathetic father helps him find a fitting way to express his grief and begin to feel better. The Accident is out-of-print but worth tracking down for a child who is struggling with this kind of loss. (If you can’t find the book online or at your library, you can ask the library to get it for you through an inter-library loan.)
The Dead Bird (Aladdin, 1987, with a new edition due out in May 2007, varied prices). By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Remy Charlip. Ages 3 and up.
This book is about the size of Goodnight Moon and offers further evidence of Brown’s genius. The story couldn’t be simpler: Four children find a dead bird, take it into the woods, and bury it amid wildflowers under a stone that says “Here Lies a Bird That Is Dead.” But this story is no less powerful because it is so brief. Charlip uses only a few colors for the art – chiefly blue-green and yellow – and on some pages, no pictures, just a sentence or two on a field of white. The missing colors suggest loss while the blue-green tones symbolize the new life that is emerging beside it. And Brown’s text has a similarly understated drama, especially in the last line, which tells what the children did after the burial: “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” What makes that line remarkable is that “until they forgot” slipped into the middle. Children do forget some animals, even people, who have died. Many authors ignore this and offer false “comfort” and “reassurance,” doling out sappy clichés suggesting children will “never forget” what they have lost. By contrast, The Dead Bird brims with honesty. Nearly 70 years after it appeared, it remains far better than many newer releases, partly because Brown knew that children don’t need false comfort: They need truth.
Many libraries have other good books on the death of a pet, including books for older children. One is Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog (Morrow, 2006), the true story of the life and death of beloved Labrador retriever, which may appeal to many teenagers. If you don’t see the kind of book you need on today’s list, ask a children’s librarian for suggestions.
A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears on this site every Saturday. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept advertising or free books from publishers, so all reviews offer an independent evaluation that is not influenced by marketing concerns. One-Minute Book Reviews also offers reading group guides and discussion questions for some books, including the most recent Newbery Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky. You can find these guides archived in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews. All reviews are written by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.