Children’s Classic Literature: Dead Dog Edition

Okay, with a title like this, you might think I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here.  Oh . . . um . . . wrong imagery, sorry.  Anyway, the Things and I were discussing the so-called children’s “classics” and how often they involve the dogs dramatically croaking by the end of the book.  This theme is so pervasive in children’s literature that an author, Gordon Korman,  even wrote a book about it – No More Dead Dogs.  Now this is a book I might actually choose to read.

Unlike these others.


Death to Puppies!

Seriously, what the heck is up with this?  Why do these people like torturing young kids?  Sure, tragedy happens, but COME ON, do we need that many books about it?  And why is it that in order to be considered good, a book must be incredibly depressing, and at times, depressing AND horrific.  Why, huh, why?

But you might wonder why the Things and I were discussing dead dogs.  No it’s not because just because I’m a  “sick puppy” it’s cause there is something wrong with our educational system.  Thing Two is currently reading a lovely book called Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner.  I too was forced to read this monstrosity, er, classic back when I was in school.  Good to know they are still torturing children all these years later.

You might think I’m exaggerating (who me?) but I’ll show you.  Here’s a compilation of four books the Things and I came up with in which a dog springs from his mortal coil and we all coil up into balls sobbing and / or wanting to stab the author.  To round off the post, I’ve got a list of creepy sounding picture books to help children deal with pet death.  And people wonder what’s wrong with kids these days.  Authors, that’s who!

The Prime Offenders

1. Stone Fox

Aw, look, a cute puppy!

Aw, a doggie!  Let’s kill it!

I thankfully have forgotten most of this book, but Thing Two and Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, were kind enough to enlighten me.  The book is about a boy named, not kidding, Little Willy, who enters a sled dog race with his canine pal, Searchlight.  Not Stone Fox, he’s the Indian guy.  Anyway, even though most sleds are pulled by several dogs, this one is pulled by Searchlight alone who heroically makes it to the end of the race.  Well almost.  Ten feet from the finish line, his heart bursts.

Yeah, you heard right.  THE DOG’S HEART BURSTS.  Ka-boom!  By the way, if you weren’t depressed enough already, this was based on the true story of an exploding dog heart.

2. Old Yeller

Hey, boy, I'm gonna plug you in the head at the end of this book!

Hey, boy, I’m gonna plug you in the head at the end of this book!

Ah the perennial favorite of school teachers everywhere – at least it was back in the 80s when teachers decided to read it to me TWICE in two successive years.  Because there’s nothing like going through an entire book getting attached to a dog only for it to get freaking RABIES at the end and even better, get shot to death by its beloved owner.  Aw.

Good news, they made a sequel too.  Old Yeller’s son, Savage Sam, only gets a hatchet in the back.  Lucky mutt.

3. Where the Red Fern Grows


Unforgettable adventure alright! You can tell the dogs are already nervous.

I’m fairly certain I had to read this as a child, but had blessedly forgotten it before Thing One helpfully reminded me.  This one has not only TWO dead dogs, but a dead kid!  Extra points!  It’s the story of Billy (not Willy) who gets some coon dogs (they chase um racoons) named Dan and Ann.  One day, a bully that’s been bothering Billy falls on an ax and blood spurts out of his mouth.  That’ll show ’em.  Later, Dan and Ann fight a mountain lion and Dan donates his intestines to the cause.  Ann dies of grief  and probably to get out of the book.  A heartwarming story for sure.  HOLY CRAP.

4. Sounder

Not lookin' good for either of us, man.

I have a bad feeling about this, boy.

This tale involves a black sharecropper and his family who apparently ticked off a higher power at some point cause their lives really stink.  The sheriff arrests the dad for feeding his family actual food and then shoots the dog, Sounder.  The dog loses an ear and an eye and can’t use a leg cause this author intends to kill him SLOWLY.  Dad is sentenced to hard labor around the country and his son follows around looking for him and -yay- finds him!  Right after he is half blown up in a dynamite blast.  Dad dies, then the dog crawls under the house and dies too, but its happy cause at one point the boy learns to read.  Lucky kid, now he can read this trip down horror lane.

Now onto the “puppy grief for kiddos” books.   I get that kids do lose pets and it’s nice to have a story to help kids work through their feelings and all that.  But the sheer number – and the titles – kind of creeps me out.  Observe this bit from “Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant who normally can write but can’t draw to save her life:

Guess what kids?  Dogs can die, and you will too!

Guess what kids? Dogs can die, and you will too!

Also check out these other winning titles:

Will I See Fido in Heaven?

Paw Prints in the Stars

Saying Goodbye to Lulu

Forever Paws

Sammy in the Sky

Billy’s Dog is Dead, Dead, Dead

Sorry, I might have made that last one up.  Dogs are real parts of our lives and in general, way better than your average human.  Because of this, I really think they deserve better than over-the-top deaths in “classic” literature, or worse, in syrupy children’s books.  So, authors, for crying out loud: Leave the dogs alone!

36 responses

  1. i loved the book Looking for vin dixy 🙂

    1. Are there dead animals in that one too?

  2. I have read and hated most of those books.

    1. Most of the books I read in school I hate. I think no one would ever read a lot of these books if someone hadn’t decided they were “classics” defined by Mark Twain as books people praise but never read.

  3. I agree with you and if I had read such a book as I was a child I probably would read never a book again. That’s not the best way to encourage children to read books. btw: Searchlight is a weird name for a dog… ok it fits to “Little Willie” ( glad no one can see my thoughts now)

    1. I thought that too – searchlight? Did he have a cat named lighbulb?

      1. hahahaha…maybe they needed a searchlight to find the little willie?

  4. Oh man, I never realized how many dogs died in kids’ books! It’s too much, make it stop!
    Dust bunnies, lets kill dust bunnies instead.
    No, let’s not.

    1. Watership Down has a bunch of dead bunnies I hear. Thankfully I never had to read or watch that little ray of sunshine.

  5. Ugh. Old Yeller is a killer. Also, speaking of dead, Charlotte’s Web. Not to mention that other category: the horse dies.

    1. She went callin’ wiiiiildfiiiire! Speaking of Charlotte’s Web, I had that read to be two years in a row too. Teachers are so unoriginal.

      1. I love Charlotte’s Web and reread it a few years back. It still made me cry.

        1. I remember being very excited the first time it was read to me to find out what happened next. And really mad that the spider died. This hasn’t really changed. I still get mad when anything in a book dies, which is why I prefer to write my own. 🙂

          1. Yeah, I don’t like death in children’s books. I know it’s a part of life yadda yadda, but do we really have to spend all that time loving a character to have them die in the end?

          2. Exactly! You know what else happens in life occasionally? Happy stuff! Try that!

          3. Lol. Yeah! If I write more children’s books, I promise there won’t be any death.

  6. Yeah, I was wondering why they couldn’t make a book or movie about a dog with a happy freaking ending? We get it. Having pets die is a part of childhood. But can’t they just have the dog live?

    Although I haven’t seen Air Bud. Since they made a few sequels, I assume he lives.

    1. Airbud – that’s one I wouldn’t mind croaking so much . . .

  7. Don’t you know? Books can’t be classified as “literary” if they are all sunshine and rainbows, or if they end anywhere near the neighborhood of Happily Ever After. There has to be angst through which a main character develops and grows into something greater.

    Yeah right.

    Anyway, I remember Where the Red Fern Grows. It was part of the curriculum in either 3rd or 4th grade. After the book was done being read, we were subjected to the movie. Nice to see they are still sending kids hope a sobbing mess with shirts soaked from hours of crying on end. It actually is a good book. But really, growth in the book is questionable.

    It could be worse I guess. They could make the children watch Grave of the Fireflies. Of course, any elementary school that did would be shut down immediately due to the high suicide rate amongst 3rd and 4th graders left to their own devices after the teachers fell into their own pits of despair.

    1. I’m not familiar with Grave of the Fireflies, but I certainly remember Lord of the Flies which showed the even proper British children can turn into homicidal maniacs if left alone. What delightful romp that was!

  8. “Forever Paws” 🙂
    I thought “Lord of the Flies” was a bit gruesome as a kid but it’s got nothing on this little collection. I guess the American education system is more into the gore and sadness than ours is.

    1. Yeah, somehow those award givers think you can’t be funny and write a good book. It’s HARDER to be funny, which is why so many people suck at it. I mean, all you have to do is say “dead puppy” and you get tears, whereas making dead puppies funny is much tougher. And somewhat demented. But you get my point.

      So there are no dead British dog books? I think a lot of storybook dogs will be moving over there.

  9. Thank you Alice for writing this post in which no commenters die. I never did like the dead dog stories. They seemed so popular though that I figured I was the only dead dog hater. So I just sort of slunk (is that a word? if not it should be) away. Reality was bad enough. When I was 7 my dog, a lab called Leader, and I went to the store. Leader ran out into traffic and then there was no Leader. I cried so much. The only good thing about this was that Leader was big enough that she ripped the base off the motor of the car that hit her and ruined its engine. I always cried for Leader every time I was forced to read a dead dog story. Sorry about the dead dog story in the comment.

    1. I like to think there was a certain amount of poetic justice in Leader taking out the car. Like I’m takin’ you with me! Seriously, sorry about the dog. Authors tug at your hearts way more with animal deaths than people deaths because animals are almost always innocent, whereas a lot of humans kind of suck.

  10. As soon as I saw what the list was going to be, I knew “Where the Red Fern Grows” had to be there! Those dogs had it coming after treeing all those poor coons. I totally forgot about the kid getting it, though. Amazing what they thought was suitable for us 8th graders. I haven’t heard of the first or last book before… and amazingly, have never read or watched Old Yeller….

    BTW, since I’m an evil Sparky link dropper, I think you’ll love this post I made yesterday, which features an old friend!

    1. How did you manage to avoid Old Yeller? Man, I got socked with that book so many times it’s a wonder I didn’t develop psychosis way earlier. Will check out the link! I do love Link Drops. 🙂

  11. Bob, Son of Battle.

    I did promise the boys I wouldn’t read them any dead dog books for at least a year after we finished Where the Red Fern Grows. Great book, but killer.

    1. It’s these kinds of books that make me read spoiler reviews half the time before I read the book because I get so mad when they kill certain characters.

  12. Not sure if I’ve read stuff like this but if not, lucky me 😉

    1. Luckier than the poor dogs for sure.

      1. I probably would have cried.

  13. I haven’t read any of these since my childhood was in a different country, so instead I can tell you that this tendency to kill off dogs isn’t just an American thing.

  14. At least with “Charlotte’s Web” you have Charlotte’s offspring hanging around afterwards, which I don’t think would have been possible if Charlotte was still alive (she’d have probably tried to eat them). But yes, it is completely sucky that they kill off the characters you come to love.

  15. I have a sister who loves dogs, and avoids books like these. One time, she watched “My Dog Skip” and then spent the next hour holding our 80lb dog on her lap and cuddling to wash away the tragedy.
    Why do dog stories have to be so depressing?
    She says her favorite dog movie is Homeward Bound, because the dogs make it home safely.

  16. So the fact that I am a cat lover narrows the field a little, but there is one slim volume that makes me cry so hard I feel like I’m going to throw up each time I read it.

    However, it is so good that I reread I every few years anyway. I think I have some well-disguised taste for suffering coursing through my veins.

    It’s called “The Cat Who Went To Heaven”, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and it may be one of those “you have to love cats, or maybe just have a soft spot for a cat you knew earlier in life” to truly appreciate. Or it might still get you crying; dog, fish, or kangaroo lover of animals.

  17. When I read Stone Fox, I loved it. But I almost cried in the middle of class when Searchlight died. I wish she would of stayed alive? I mean, every book and/or movie I watch has a character that you fall in love with, then that person just DIES. And that’s the end. I hate that so much!! Why must u people make those endings?! Whyyyy?!?

    But my favorite is Stone Fox, because it’s really the only one I read.

    Also, I NEED to find out the real story where the actual dog’s heart exploded. I want to know more about the REAL story of the exploding heart. Why couldn’t the author put some kind of website to find it or something. I MUST find it!

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