Or, Why Must the Animals Always Die?!
Guys, I’m having an issue right now. Maybe in comparison to other issues we might encounter in YA books–sex, gender politics, white-washing, relationships–the thing that’s bothering me is small potatoes. But to me, this one is kind of a big deal because it’s one of my LEAST favorite plot devices there is, and even when I understand WHY it happens, which isn’t all the time, I never like it and I ALWAYS have a hard time dealing with it. Friends, I’m wondering why authors like to kill all the animals. WHY?????? It just makes my heart so heavy and sad. And truth time: When I’m reading, I get more emotional about the death of an animal than I do about the death of a person. GET RID OF THE BAD GUYS INSTEAD, AUTHORS! Pretty please?
I’ve been encountering some kind of animal death in the books I’m reading more frequently lately, so this issue is on my mind a lot at the moment. I know that killing off what are usually innocent, sometimes-helpless, protective animals is often an effective way of communicating to the reader the brutality of life for the people living in whatever world the book is set. And I know that killing a beloved pet or loyal animal is a way to spur some kind of character growth through grief. Sometimes killing an animal is symbolic of something to do with the owner. I’ve even seen pets and animals die noble deaths, protecting their loved ones from harm (HEDWIG, ILY!!!). But guys? No matter how it happens or why or how well it’s handled or what it might mean, it’s always a thumbs down for me, often because I feel like I can understand the brutality of life from other things in the story, or the character can grow from experiencing other things, or a person can be saved through some other means. I’d believe ANYTHING an author told me as long as it saved an animal or pet. (Probably ;-)) (Also, Mild spoilers ahead.)
I mentioned Hedwig just before, and that’s a good example of a pet making a sacrifice. Her death SLAYED ME, and I kind of hated it. Of all the deaths in Harry Potter, Hedwig’s bothered me the most. It didn’t make me the saddest, but I just…I don’t know. I always wished that Harry could have been saved some other way. It happened so fast that it almost made me think we weren’t supposed to have enough time to be sad about it, and so that made me feel like Hedwig got bumped off and swept under the rug a little.
Hedwig isn’t the only pet death that has made me sad. One of my FAVORITE series of all time–A Song of Ice and Fire–kills off animals and pets in absolutely DEVASTATING ways that often make me sadder than when characters in those books die. Example (as spoiler-free as possible): In the first book, A GAME OF THRONES, there’s a BIG BIG death at the end. It is sad. It is surprising. It is brutal. It sets off ALL OF THE THINGS, pretty much, for at least the next two books. But before this death happens, a little ways back in the story, a pet dies in a horrible, unjustified way. I cried WAY harder about the pet than about the person. It wasn’t even close.
Another book that I LOVED leaves the life of a pet hanging in the balance (LEGEND). I’m super nervous about June’s dog, guys!! I keep crossing my fingers that Ollie will somehow escape June’s apartment and go off searching for June and find her in the Colonies somewhere. Ollie and June reunion, please!!
All of this isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the drama of a helpless animal in danger, or that I don’t think there are books that handle this kind of thing in a way that doesn’t stab me in the heart. There was one book I read last year that, I thought, handled this “pet in peril” really well, because it had the danger and the drama but the pet didn’t die. THE SCORPIO RACES is ABOUT deadly animals, so you can assume that you’ll come across pet danger. And yes, random sheep and neighbors dogs go missing and are assumed dead (this last part really DID make me sad, even though the dog was a complete stranger). But Puck’s family has a cat, Puffin, who is super attached to Puck’s brother, Finn. There’s a little bit of the story where we’re led to believe that Puffin has died. BUT!! It turns out that Puffin is a cat-ninja who escaped the gaping maw of the deadly water horse and LIVED! She LIVED! I can get behind things like this because it proved to me that saving the animal and amping up the drama and tension are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. More of this, please!!
So that’s my rant, guys. In a nutshell: I’m begging you to stop killing the animals, authors! If your story is good and dramatic and your characters have depth, then whacking their pets won’t really be necessary to creating or fostering those elements in your story. You can do all of those things without animal slaughter. I do want to make one thing clear, though: All of these books I mentioned here are books that I LOVED. That’s ALL CAPS love. I won’t hate your story if you kill an animal; far from it. But I’ll always hate that PART of your story, and there’s really nothing you can do to prevent me from feeling that way and griping about it somewhere. Well, except not killing that animal. Then we’d be good.
What about you guys? Am I being too sappy? Do animal deaths make you sadder than people deaths?