Ah, childhood. A time of whimsy, growth, and books about dead animals. Look, I get that death is a part of life, and children have to learn about it at some point... but did quite so many children's books have to involve beloved pets being killed? It seems just a tad excessive. And if you'd like to re-open some childhood wounds, here a few super depressing children's books to remind you just how sad you could be as a kid.
I don't know about other kids, but I couldn't handle sad stories at all when I was little. I needed to know upfront if any animals or sweet-natured sisters were going to die. I hid my copy of The Yearling behind the bookshelf so that its sadness couldn't poison me. But even with all those precautions, I was still tricked into reading several unreasonably depressing books as a child. And those books helped shape me into the emotionally fragile mess I am today.
Yes, ok, not every story can have a happy ending. And yes, kids are tough and they can usually recover from a fictional dog death in due time. But if you think that children's books are all babysitter's clubs and magic school buses, I'd like to remind you about a few books that set out to make children cry:
1. Watership Down by Richard Adams
It's a book about bunnies, right? Kids like bunnies. This must have been the thinking of all the adults who gave their children Watership Down to read, not realizing that Watership Down is an epic drama of a complex rabbit civilization fighting against utter destruction. There are rabbit traumas and rabbit deaths throughout and then, at the very end, our hero rabbit "leaves his body behind" to join the big rabbit warren in the sky. Bunnies aren't supposed to make you cry this much.
2. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The kid has two dogs. (Spoiler!) Both the dogs die. There, now you don't have to read Where the Red Fern Grows. If you were a kid who liked dogs (and you hadn't yet been burned by Old Yeller), then some well-meaning grown-up probably put this book in your hands as a child. And they probably did not realize that it involves a scene where a kids finds his pet dog's intestines in a bush. Yeah. It's not a happy ending.
3. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The freaking Yearling. It's yet another book about some woodsy kid who has a pet and then the pet DIES. But The Yearling goes that extra mile. Little Jody adopts a cutesy baby fawn, and it's all just too precious. But then, of course, things go south, everyone is too poor for pets, Jody's mother shoots the deer, and Jody has to kill his own pet baby deer to end its suffering. For kids!
4. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I love Charlotte's Web. Who doesn't love Charlotte's Web? But I bawled my eyes out the first time I realized that the spider actually dies at the end (it may have taken me more than one go through to come to this conclusion... I was very young). I thought she just went away or something. But no. She creates art for idiots and pigs, and then she dies unrecognized and leaves her children orphaned.
5. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Tuck Everlasting is a subtle kind of depressing. No beloved animals get shot. But it does confront children with the terrifying prospect of living for eternity while your loved ones age and die (and also the terrifying fact of mortality). The Tuck family are blessed/cursed with immortality, and young Winnie must choose between joining them in living forever, or growing old and dying like a normal person. She (spoiler!) chooses a mortal life, and the book ends with the Tucks visiting her grave. The whole book is one big Memento Mori.
6. The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
This book is primarily depressing because the events described actually happened. Kenny Watson and his family are fictional, but the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama was all too real. It was an act of white supremacist terrorism. The Watson family survives, but those few pages where they think the little sister was killed in the blast are utterly terrifying. And the awful reality is that four little girls did die in the bombing, making this book far, far sadder than the saddest fictional pet death.
7. The Witches by Roald Dahl
This one is equal parts creepy and depressing. The witches themselves are nightmarish. But the real terror is that the main character is turned into a mouse and there's no cure. He's just a mouse now. Forever. And at the end, his grandmother reveals that, since mice have shorter lifespans, he'll probably die soon. But he's cool with it, because she's old and will also die soon. Grim.
8. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
If Bridge to Terabithia didn't make you weep uncontrollably on the school bus, then you definitely didn't read it. Jesse is an artsy kid who becomes best friends with Leslie, the new girl in school who doesn't quite fit in. Together they adopt a puppy. You're probably thinking that the puppy dies, right? (Spoiler!) NO, Leslie dies. And Jesse thinks it's partially his fault. Cue the ragged sobbing.
9. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
You know the drill. At first the kid can't stand Old Yeller. Then, in typical rom com fashion, he realizes that he loves Old Yeller. Then Old Yeller gets rabies and the kid has to shoot him. At least this sob-fest ends with Old Yeller's puppies living on but... it's pretty much your classic boy-meets-dog, boy-loves-dog, boy-is-forced-to-shoot-dog-for-dog's-own-good.
10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women can depress readers of all ages, but most of us probably read it as children. And most of us probably lost it over (spoiler!) Beth's death. I mean, yeah, Beth is no Jo. She doesn't even have Amy's spunk and lack of regard for other people's feelings. But Beth is the NICE ONE and then she DIES. It's like if Friends killed off Monica.
11. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
I know that children can handle heavy themes. I don't think all children's books have to be happy-go-lucky romps full of fuzzy barnyard animals. But really, Hans Christian Andersen? A little girl dying of hypothermia in an alleyway? That's the whole plot? Nothing else happens? The Little Match Girl is one gut punch of a story. You'd think that a few pages would not be enough space to make you heart-breakingly sad about some random kid dying in the street. But you would be WRONG.
Images: Nepenthe Productions