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Among the children’s books my mother passed on to me from her own childhood, there were a lot of familiar classics: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  There were also some books I have never seen or heard mentioned elsewhere: Bitsy Finds the Clue, Understood Betsy. Almost all of these books contained passages that might seem morbid now, but were an accepted part of children’s literature then, just as, I guess, they were an accepted part of children’s lives.  That is, in almost every book a friend or sibling of the main character dies.

Most followed the standard “only the good die young” format. I cried long and hard over dear, gentle Beth in Little Women, and Ed in Jack and Jill. (Being kindhearted and fond of music is pretty much the kiss of death in Louisa May Alcott’s books). As soon as someone is described as selfless and beloved by all, get the hankies ready for a Beth March rerun. Dreadful little Amy,on the other hand, lives through all the sequels. (That girl is too mean to die.)  Every once in a while, a bad kid died, maybe just for variety, like silly, flirtatious Ruby Gillis in Anne of Green Gables.  

I mourned them all, and since it was my habit to read at bedtime, there were more than a few nights that my mother had to come sit with me until I was consoled enough for the latest fictional death.  But none of this prepared me for Billy the puppy.  Billy the puppy was a character in Beautiful Joe, a book I have long believed was essentially a propaganda piece for the ASPCA. I looked it up recently and could find no direct evidence, but I stand by my original conclusion.  The kids in the book not only scold adults they find abusing animals, they take a detailed pledge, like miniature animal abuse teetotalers, promising to never engage in behaviors like stealing birds’ eggs or nests.

Billy’ s death, only a short time after he was rescued from an abusive situation, was heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard, at least not over a book.  But there is something pleasurable about luxuriating in grief, when you choose to, like my college friend who never missed a late night rerun of Love Story, box of tissues at hand. Jodi Picoult has legions of fans, and even though I always feel manipulated by her books, I also always cry.

What books have you read that made you cry? Are there any you return to for “a good cry”?