Because I’ve never really forgiven the author of Old Yeller

For airline reading, I had a book picked up at Kindling Words that turned out to be one of those books where the beloved pet dies, causing growth and change in the protagonist along the way.

I think I see why the author did it, though I’m torn about whether I agree with the decision–and about how I feel about the book–which was all about coming to terms with sadness–overall.

But it got me to thinking again about the whole business of killing Beloved Pets off in children’s literature. This has always bothered me, and yet there’s a project I’m working on where I’ve come to the conclusion that the pet has to die. And this really, really bugs me.

But the story wants it. I wrote the scene in question both ways–wrote it with the pet living first, in fact–because I don’t do stories where pets die, and I had no desire to start. I’m still sort of hoping I’ll find a way around it, even though I know better.

But thinking about that, and then thinking about my airplane book, I think I’m finally beginning to understand why so many pets die in children’s books. It’s because as in any story, sometimes there needs to be loss–and sometimes letting the pet die seems a more bearable loss than any of the many other sorts of losses the story can contain.

But thinking like that is thinking like an adult. Any child will tell you that losing a pet is not a bearable loss, that indeed it’s a harder loss than losing many people would be. Pets are on equal footing with any other friend or relative in a child’s life. (And in many adult ones, too, judging by the reactions that adult writers get when pets are harmed in their books–to the point that I’ve seen adult writers advise against doing it entirely, as something that will hurt sales. Which makes one wonder why books that kill pets would be seen as more taboo for adults than for children–but that’s a whole other topic.)

Anyway, thinking about it some more: characters do die in fiction, so I don’t think it’s problematic to include animals among the many characters who may or may not survive until the story’s end. But an animal character has to die as a character, not as a plot device or a convenient way of making the protagonist grow and change without killing the folks the adult reader thinks it would be more unbearable to lose.

When any character death is a plot device or insta-growth-and-change tool, and when it’s an inevitable consequence of the story being told is a tricky line, though–and possibly none of us would even agree as to when that line has been crossed, and when it hasn’t.

What do you all think, about this whole business of when it is and isn’t acceptable–or even when it does and doesn’t make good plot sense–for animals to die in fiction? (And are the answers any different for children’s and adult books, and why or why not?)

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