I’m an animal lover: I have three dogs and three cats, my family and I visit zoos, we volunteer at the local rescue place, and I donate to the World Wildlife Fund. As I was drafting Lost Dogs, my recently-published sci-fi novel about two dogs who witness the end of the human world, I read and re-read quite a few other “animal books” to get a flavor for what was already out there.
Some of them, I was reminded, are really, really sad.
I’m sure you know what I mean. You start reading a story with a critter in it–say, a character’s dog or cat–and BAM! something horrible happens to said pet. If you’re like me, you might have thought to yourself, “If I had known what was going to happen, I never would have picked up that book.” But now that you have, you can’t un-read it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of rating on the cover so you’d know what you’re getting yourself into? Maybe an easily-understand visual for just how sad an “animal book” is? Something like…this?
What it means: “HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY.” This sort of book might have animals in it, but nothing more unpleasant than minor inconveniences actually happens to them. Either that, or the book is so poorly done, you won’t actually care what happens.
What it means: “NO WORRIES.” You might experience a slight and momentary tremor of concern, quickly assuaged by the reminder that one is reading light entertainment that will surely end well.
What it means: “IT’S FINE.” How bad could it be? Perhaps an unnerving scene here or there, but nothing that anyone over the age of eight can’t handle.
What it means: “IT’LL BE ALL RIGHT IN THE END.” The premise of the book might be grim, some scenes may be violent or gory. Animals may be injured or stressed, but all will be well. Hopefully.
Even the cat lives, so it can’t be that bad.
What it means: “IT’S OKAY, BUT…” Violence and peril might get a little intense, but you’d still let your kid read it. Heck, you read it as a kid, and it was okay. Right? Right?
What it means: “THIS WILL KINDA BUM YOU OUT.” The book runs about 50/50 light and dark: happy scene, sad scene, happy scene, sad scene. At the end, you might be glad you read it, but you must admit that it was bittersweet.
What it means: “IF ANYONE ASKS, YOU CAN SAY THERE’S SOMETHING IN YOUR EYE.” Here’s where the author starts hitting you right in the gut. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Graphic violence. Tread carefully: here there be tygers.
What it means: “TELL YOURSELF, ‘IT’S ONLY A BOOK.'” Some novels don’t need to hit you over the head with mayhem or animal-on-animal violence to get you weeping. Some do it by conjuring up the most unlikely, wonderful, delightful characters that you soon fall in love with–and then the author dangles their inevitable, unavoidable doom right in your face. The death of a fictional spider can make a grown man blubber like a beaten child. Do you doubt me?
What it means: “IT’S SAD. NO, IT’S REALLY SAD. NOT GONNA LIE TO YOU.” And then there are some books that you don’t even bother trying to put on a brave front about.
What it means: “YOU’RE GOING TO NEED ANOTHER BOX OF TISSUES.” If the author was a football team, here’s where they’d be running up the score on you late in the 4th Quarter. Have they no consideration for our feelings? No sense of shame? No (dare I say it) mercy?
What it means: “AFTER READING THIS, YOU MIGHT JUST OPEN A VEIN.” And then there are some authors who just can’t help but go there. These are the books that blot out a small piece of your soul forever.
As for my own humble efforts, I would say that Lost Dogs, with its canine-on-canine violence, gore, and wrenching abandonment and loss, is a “double weeper,” like Charlotte’s Web or Watership Down.
Which of the books I mentioned above have you read? And which do you think were the most sad? Let me know in the comments.Kenton Kilgore is the author of LOST DOGS, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief.