Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Soapbox:Why Do Animals Always Die in Childrens Books?

After reading fellow Book Fox RosyB’s essay on the books of her childhood, I began thinking of mine. Having similar interests, we each read animal books, but I noticed something about many of the ones I read: most of the time, the animals died.
Why was that?
Why did so many of the novels, often staged as the author’s reminiscences of a beloved family pet, end with the animal dying, sometimes in violent ways? Not just dog tales, like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, but also wild creatures that had been part of the family, such as the fawn in The Yearling and Tarka, the otter.
When I received a Nook ereader for my birthday, I decided to put a few old favorites on it for sentimental reasons. But one I avoided was Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known which was a long awaited gift when I was 6 years old. It was soon regretted, as all of the stories ended with the animal getting killed; shot, poisoned, trapped, often with its mate and offspring. It was a harsh book for such a tender-hearted child as I was, some of the pages are wrinkled from my tears.
Seton was one of those rustic men who “tamed” the American West, wiping out supposed varmints. It can be said that he had a grudging respect for the creatures he portrayed, especially the ones who evaded humans for so long. He was a notch above Jack London, who wrote of dogs in an even more primitive way.
Many of the animal books were set in the early 20th century and the Great Depression, when more of the population lived in rural areas where hunting and butchering was familiar. Perhaps that allowed authors to have their characters face a stark reality that was often the everyday fate of animals on farms. Or has animal life become Disneyfied in the modern world despite the many cable channels devoted to nature programs?
Maybe it was part of a larger lesson for children? A subliminal message to prepare them for adulthood? Life is tough, get used to it! Or it doesn’t matter how loyal you are, those you love will betray you in the end. Any way you think of it, it’s hard to see how breaking kids’ hearts and adding to their stress level is really healthy.
I can think of a few animal books with happier conclusions, Rascal the raccoon was released back into the wild. So was Elsa in Born Free. Black Beauty was rescued and lived out his days in better conditions than in his prime. My favorite childhood book, Lassie Come Home had a satisfying resolution.
I know that sometimes teachers use a kid’s interests to guide them to the Classics. One teacher I had suggested The Red Pony as an introduction to John Steinbeck. Why couldn’t she have steered me towards the more light-hearted Travels With Charley? Both animal stories, but one had a horribly sad ending. I’m lucky I read any more Steinbeck after what happened to the Pony.
As an adult, I try to avoid any books where I know the animal dies. That means no Marley and Me or Edgar Sawtelle. But kids don’t usually know the outcome of books or are unaware of their reputations, so they walk into it blindly, with their tender hearts unprotected. I don’t know if a steady diet of animal characters expiring would cause a child to become compassionate or over anxious.
Since I don’t have children, I don’t know if modern animal novels are less fraught or if kids even read them nowadays. Or are they more interested in dystopian worlds and teens with magical powers? If so, perhaps there are fewer little hearts being bruised from the loss of fictional furry friends.

Jackie continues to express her love of animals as a wildlife artist. You can see some of her artwork here .

19 comments on “Soapbox:Why Do Animals Always Die in Childrens Books?

  1. patrickmurtha
    August 29, 2011

    I guess it all depends on the author’s intent. Ernest Thompson Seton was an avowed realist; he writes about that in the introduction to “Wild Animals I Have Known,” if I recall correctly (I don’t have the book at hand). So one would expect the types of stories he writes. I had the book as a child, too, and found it enthralling. Animals don’t usually die in more fabulistic animal stories such as “The Wind in the Willows,” or the Doctor Dolittle books, or Robert Lawson’s “Rabbit Hill” (although there are exceptions, such as “Charlotte’s Web”). Kipling’s “Jungle Books” are an in-between case (and by the way, how Disney got a jolly animated film out of such a tragic text, I’ll never understand).

    So, although I perfectly well understand the point of the post, I’m not sure there is really a trend here; it’s all on a case-by-case basis. Speaking for myself as a crazy animal lover who took Doctor Dolittle as a role model and never relinquished him, as a child I read many books in which animals died, and many in which they didn’t, and I still do today. I don’t regret any of them. The deaths of my own companion animals have each been traumatic, but perhaps the more tragic animal books helped in a small way to prepare me for those deaths. Of course I would have a difficult time taking pleasure in a text that reveled in cruelty to animals, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Death is not cruelty. Death is a fact.

  2. kirstyjane
    August 29, 2011

    I see the logic of the above comment perfectly, but — as an apparently mature adult who recently burst into tears explaining the story of Bedd Gelert to a friend* — I’m entirely on board with your comments, comrade J. I even think I was much better at handling animal death in books and on the screen (and it does seem to be a constant theme) when I was a child. Now I find I am much more strongly affected by it, perhaps because death is not so abstract to an adult as it is to a (fortunate) child. I’ve had to give up watching Pixar films entirely…

    * “And then… and then *sniff*… the… the prince saw… saw the wolf and *noisy incomprehensible wailing*”

  3. EmmaBarnes
    August 29, 2011

    Bedd Gelert – I remember that story turning up in a school reading book, of all things, and being reduced to tear-soaked pulp. Absolutely devastating!

    I do think there’s something similar going on now with modern children’s books and children with cancer. They always die. I can think of a load of examples…Morris Gleitzman, Jean Ure, Sally Nicolls, Jenny Downham (I haven’t actually read that one but it’s called something like Things To Do Before I Die). Much praised, prize-winning books…but where are the books about children SURVIVING cancer? I can’t think of any.

    And yet lots of children do survive cancer. I think (I may be wrong) that childhood leukaemia is one of those conditions where great progress has been made…where are those books?

  4. littlenavyfish
    August 29, 2011

    I was a massive Dick King-Smith fan as a child and as a rules his animals remain alive and well!

  5. Melrose
    August 29, 2011

    I think one of the most awful films to watch is Old Yeller – I find it difficult to think about the ending, where the dog gets rabies defending the family from a wolf, and then the 15 year old boy has too shoot him. How miserable is that – I could feel myself welling up just thinking about it. And I don’t even go near the Gelert story. All these brave, loyal animals suffering and dying most unfairly…. I’m sure most kids get to the end thinking the animal will be saved by a miracle, just to get their hopes and belief in good prevailing over evil dashed to the ground.

    A good subject ot tackle, Jackie, and a good question to ask. If they’re in some kind of film too, with a loose gunman or serial killer or whatever, you just know they’re going to get it, as well.

    And, then, of course, there’s Bambi’s mum that gets shot by the hunters, and Dumbo’s mother who gets beaten up.

  6. kirstyjane
    August 29, 2011

    I haven’t even seen Old Yeller and it has already scarred me! All I needed was that one line: “No, Pa, he’s my dog…”

  7. rosyb
    August 29, 2011

    I was unsure about the idea behind this post, Jacks – but now reading it I think you have hit on something and I relate to this wholeheartedly as I suspect we might have been rather similar animal-obsessed over sensitive children.

    Much as i take the point about realism…and, let’s face it, nature is very cruel, I am not sure about that in this context. It is not that realistic to attach a child’s emotions onto an animal and then to devastate them with the animal’s brutal killing (yes, I’m thinking of Tarka the Otter here which really did devastate me horribly as a child – the result, I avoided similar books from then on.)

    As a person with a rescue dog and interested and involved to some small level with rescue – the cruelty surrounding animals is absolutely appaling. It is easy to get sucked into a desperate misery and a feeling of total helplessness about it all. Animals being hurt and used for bait or whatever.

    I think the thing is that many children relate closely to animals because animals are powerless in a similar way to children – and are to some extent voiceless too. This creates a very strong sense of identification and why – I believe – animals are often stand-ins for children or people in picture books.

    I think the Tarka the Otter experience left me feeling hopeless and wretchedly sad as a child. Whereas something like Watership Down outlined the difficulties of animal versus man (and questions what is cruel or not) – enabling me to think about it, whilst not being devastated. I suppose Watership Down is not realistic – but the question is whether children’s identification with animals *is* realistic or on a slightly different level.

    I believe that it is really important to teach children to have empathy and imagination about other creatures. As soon as you find out how so many animals are treated – either through cruelty or neglectful lack of thought and empathy – you realise how so many people lack this imagination. I also believe that it is through encouraging that imagination and respect for other creatures that people will extend empathy more generally to other people and other situations (it is known that abuse of animals by children, for example, can be a sign of abuse in the home).

    I have to add that I watched a lot of animal documentaries as a child. I think the difference is that animals are killing to live and the entire struggle for survival is often evident in these programmes. It is man’s needless cruelty that is so upsetting in Tarka the Otter, for example.

    But then again as a grown up I have now seen different documentaries – and many have been upset by the famous sequence of chimps hunting monkeys – and pulling baby animals limb from limb. As our closest relative, the chimp is so like man, and that violence and “cruelty” is maybe therefore more keenly felt.

    As I say, I think it’s about balance. Putting things in a context for children, encouraging empathy and not totally ducking the issues – but being careful, perhaps, when children’s emotions have been wheeled in, not to trample all over them to the extent that you leave them feeling hopeless or powerless.

  8. rosyb
    August 29, 2011

    On the other hand, I don’t think disneyfied animals is the way to go either…I think we can encourage empathy and respect and interest in other creatures without making them “cute” and “sentimental” or like toys. So, as I say, I think a balance is important…

  9. rosyb
    August 29, 2011

    And actually, thinking about this again – I don’t even think Tarka the Otter is supposed to be a kids’ book is it? It’s just that a lot of kids read it. I suppose, some of the reason for this that you notice is that children who love animals read animal books in general – I know I did. And some of those are going to be harrowing. Is Seton’s book aimed at children? (I am unfamiliar with his work, I admit).

    I think I have got confused between Tarka the Otter and A Ring of Bright Water – which was massive when I was a child. That was the book that upset me hugely as a child because of the brutality – but it was not fictional and was trying to change attitudes about otters, so the author was making a point. I have mixed feelings about it really because the majority of it was so fun and funny that it lulls you into a false sense of security as a kid – and the end was awful. But it was the truth, presumably, and we have to learn the world’s a cruel place at some point…

    You can probably tell I have no idea what I think, really, from my many posts – all disagreeing with each other.

  10. Nikki
    August 29, 2011

    Oh I hate books (and films, for that matter) where the animals die. Especially when it’s in horrible circumstances. I can’t bear real life stories that involve animal cruelty or anything like that so I try to avoid them in fiction. Black Beauty was one of my faves as a child – maybe that’s why I’m always so affected by anything terrible happening to animals (and why I’ve always wanted a horse)?

  11. Jackie
    August 29, 2011

    But Seton wasn’t writing about animals in a completely naturalistic way, as most of the animals met their ends through human machinations: poisons, traps, shotguns. Think of what happened to Lobo the wolf & his mate, Blanca. Seton took the attitude that many of the animals he wrote about were varmints that needed to be eradicated and he took more interest in the contest between the animals & humans, that he did on merely reporting their behavior, etc.
    While I did like Kipling, I didn’t read the fabulistic animal tales you mention, I much preferred the non-talking animal stories, such as Marguerite Henry’s.

  12. Mimi
    August 29, 2011

    I agree, I read “The Red Pony” as a kid in school, and coupled with the fact that the other of his books we read in school was “The Pearl” I thought I hated him (except “Cannery Row”) It turns out, I just hate “The Red Pony” – he’s great.

  13. Moira
    August 30, 2011

    Isn’t it weird?I don’t think I’m an unsympathetic human being by any means – or have a skewed sense of priorities – but while books with sad endings involving people (mostly) leave me unmoved, animal stories with unhappy endings reduce me to sobbing incoherence – to such an extent that I simple won’t read or watch them.

    I simply can’t work out why that should be …

  14. Eve Harvey
    August 30, 2011

    Oh ya bunch of Jessies… :p

    I love a good reason to cry and all sorts of dying animal/child/hero scenarios make me sob uncontrollably in a rather unattractive way. But then I choose books that deliberately do that… the more morose and tragic the better. And I remember as a child doing the very same thing. Making my poor mum read the sad bit over and over and again as I wailed.

    Maybe I’m just weird, but I do think that’s the great thing about fiction. It’s not real. So I have no trouble reading about dying animals and suffering the consequences. There is nothing better than a good cleansing breakdown. However, I don’t watch wildlife documentaries because I’m always upset that the camera man just stood there and watched it happen… I tend to yell at the screen.

  15. Eve Harvey
    August 30, 2011

    P.S… just found a retelling of Bedd Gellert online and am now a horrible mess 😦

  16. Cheryl
    September 2, 2011

    This puts me so much in mind of No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman, a very funny YA novel about exactly this subject…could be therapeutic for any kid traumatized by too many books with dead pets.

  17. Susan Pratt
    August 26, 2013

    AMEN! I am glad I am not the only one who was scarred for life by these books….I almost quit reading altogether as a child!

  18. Jeane
    September 17, 2015

    The Red Pony certainly is gruesome- I read it first as a teen and was taken aback; I think if I’d read it as a younger child I would have been horrified. I am trying to think of some examples of modern animal fiction, but can’t come up with any that aren’t utterly tame compared to Seton- and most of the animal books I read are from older generations. I would probably come across more newer texts as I parallel my ten-year-old’s reading, but exactly as you suggested, she is “interested in dystopian worlds and teens with magical powers” which doesn’t dovetail with my reading interests at all.

  19. Kae Elizabeth Carter
    June 21, 2020

    So true, Jackie! I remember, too, as a child at the movies, being traumatized by Bambi’s mother’s death. I swore I’d never have my daughter see that film. My granddaughter recently read By the Shores of Silver Lake in the Little House series, and her main takeaway from that book was the bulldog Jack’s death. I agree that grown-ups write books like Old Yeller to prepare children for the world’s heartaches and to teach them that we have to say goodbye to loved ones someday, but don’t they have enough experience about that in real life? I hate that most of our children’s school’s language arts curriculum consists of books about death.

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