When I was in second grade, the teacher read us “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls. Maybe it was part of that year’s curriculum. Or maybe she just hated us. Maybe she thought that a few of us had reached the ripe old age of 7 without losing enough grandparents, getting punched enough on the playground, or that we weren’t spending enough nights lying awake with terror at what little we understood of the Cold War. Perhaps, she thought, “Where the Red Fern Grows” would round out the character building we were surely missing out on.
So, she read it aloud. Initially, I felt sorry for impoverished Billy, and then scornful at how he risked the lives of his precious dogs. For the love of God, they couldn’t stay home and play ball? Yes, they were hunting dogs, but I was a second-grader. Instead of seeing him as an adventurous country boy, I thought he was just a negligent pet owner. And of course the damned dogs die in the end, because that’s the main reason dogs are in children’s fiction. I remember that brief moment when I thought that perhaps the heartless author had meant it to be a cautionary tale. I thought that with poor Old Dan dead, Little Ann would live on and stupid, reckless Billy would take better care of her. I thought that Billy, having learned his lesson, would wisely stop his constant slaughter of wildlife and enjoy a few years with his remaining dog. But, no. My hope was as short-lived as the dog herself.
I felt cheated by this pointless, depressing story. Since the teacher had read it to us, I figured we were supposed to get some Meaningful Message from it. Seeing that I hadn’t, I was embarrassed. I thought I was probably the only one in class who hated it. More embarrassing still, I got the impression that we were supposed to sympathize with Billy’s reaction to the death of the awful neighbor boy, Rubin. That was the scene that made me loathe Billy the most. Because if someone had tried to hurt my dogs and fell on his own hatchet, I’d have pulled it out and chopped his head off with it. (Yes, this was my thought process at the age of 7.) As far as I was concerned, Billy was an idiot who couldn’t take care of his dogs, and he was a sissy who didn’t know when to spit on the corpse of his foe.
Sure, we can’t protect children from the harshness of reality but we don’t need bad literature to teach them life isn’t fair. I think the injustice of so-depressing-it-makes-you-want-to-hang-yourself children’s literature is that it can ruin their perception of what good storytelling should be. That isn’t to say that kids’ books shouldn’t delve into difficult topics, but there’s better ways to do that than through stories about irresponsible hillbillies with murderous neighbors. Not that the book shouldn’t be on the library shelf. It should be there. But maybe it shouldn’t be required reading. Having the teacher’s seeming endorsement can be baffling for kids who, like me, will spend the rest of their years in school avoiding any assigned reading because – clearly – if the teacher picked it, it must be awful.
Incidentally, parents with animal-loving children can at least avoid the unhappy surprise of dog-deaths in movies at this handy website which will give you a heads-up about the dog’s fate without spoiling the rest of the ending. Click the link, type in a title and voila! You can put away your tissues and watch something else. (And when it comes to books, I’ll stand by my old rule: if someone assigned it, try not to read it. It’s the only way to be sure.)