Writing this blog can generate some strange thought processes. The truth is that a bookseller’s brain is kind of a big swirl in which wildly disparate, nothing-alike books and stories and sentences bump up against each other continuously, like mismatched socks in a washing machine (yes, I was just reading A Sock Story by CK Smouha to my 5-year-old tonight). So it’s hard to say what exactly will be top of mind when Thursday comes around. Out of the maelstrom, you can find yourself wondering unexpected things, such as: is physically putting animals to rest a new theme in children’s books? I mean, no, it’s obviously not a “trend.” Sloths and llamas and unicorns can breathe easily. But this week I found myself thinking about two new books that deal with mortality on a very practical level, albeit with different slants and for different audiences.
In All the Dear Little Animals by Swedish author Ulf Nillson, the casual discovery of a dead bee on a table sends a trio of kids into a weird, scary, surprising, and dryly matter-of-fact exploration of death for a day. Determined to help all the “dead things get buried,” they search under bushes, cold-call pet owners, troll for roadkill, and even raid the fridge to locate as many “poor dead animals” as possible to lay to rest. Along the way, as the venerable members of Funerals Ltd. overcome their fears of touching the dead, reckon with the truth of their own mortality, and praise themselves for their altruistic efforts, they also walk themselves through all the steps they think go along with saying goodbye.
Effortlessly and hilariously blending the prosaic and the profound, this entrepreneurial trio carefully covers all the bases—with one partner who does the digging, one who writes the poems, and one who just cries. This isn’t a grief book, and it isn’t a meaning-of-life book, and it isn’t a mortuary instruction manual—although it definitely kind of is all of those things. It’s more about the profound and hilarious ways that kids tackle and absorb the big ideas head on, pondering them from all possible angles before abruptly moving on to the next thing.
Weirdly, All the Dear Little Animals was not the first book I’ve read in the last few weeks to dig into the details of scooping up roadkill and reverently putting it to rest. In Snapdragon by Kat Leyh, the titular heroine braves the house of the terrifying town witch to rescue her dog, only to find an ex-motorcycle racing, roadkill collecting, magic-wielding free thinker under that black cloak and wide-brimmed hat—one who spends her time spiritually honoring and burying dead animals so they can decompose before she re-articulates their skeletons to sell on the internet. Jacks also just might be Snapdragon’s grandmother’s long-lost love.
Although she takes a more mystical approach and targets a much older, sophisticated audience than Nilsson, Leyh is equally clear-eyed in her approach to death. Because this is a graphic novel for teen readers, though, Snapdragon is less about a passing childhood fascination and more about seeing ourselves and our connections to others clearly—in life or in death. While a sense of mortality is ever-present, the heart of this fierce intergenerational story is very much rooted in life—just as the magic Jacks wields to help animals pass on issues from her own generous life force, a life force undampened by age and solitude. For while this quirky graphic novel may walk calmly hand in hand with death, it also makes a compelling case that it’s never too late to truly live.