I wrote about 6 childhood books that have haunted me my whole life for The Nervous Breakdown, 5 of which I’ve shared below. Because apparently, if an animal dies a horrible death, you should probably write a children’s book about it.
If you want to view the longer piece:
The following are descriptions of 5 books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.
1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.
And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.
He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.
The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.
The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.
The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.
Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.
Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.
2. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers.
One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.
The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.
Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.
Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.
3. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.
The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.
I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.
They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.
The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.
Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.
Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.’”
4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.
Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.
He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.
The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.
Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.
5. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.
A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it.
After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites.
(It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)
The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”
Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.
Now who wants cookies?
The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.
Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?
TAWNI FREELAND played guitar and sang for rock bands in Lawrence, Kansas and Los Angeles before settling down in Tulsa. She is working on her first novel. She has no exotic pets.