x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

New book aims to help kids cope with loss of a pet

Sammy in the Sky aims to teach kids about loss, based on the tale of a family dog.

First there was Marley, the rambunctious golden retriever whose death brought readers to tears in John Grogan's 2005 book Marley and Me.

Now there's Sammy, a mixed-breed hound who's the subject of another tear-jerker, the children's book Sammy in the Sky.

When her beloved hound dog died, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barbara Walsh watched her young daughters tearfully struggle with their loss and with tough questions. Walsh quickly realised there was a story to be told, one that she hopes will help other families deal with the loss of a pet.

But it wasn't easy getting the book published, even after Walsh enlisted a celebrated American artist, Jamie Wyeth, to fill the pages with illustrations in watercolour, acrylic and pencil. Book agents and publishers were squeamish about the subject matter, yet Walsh and Wyeth didn't want to sugarcoat the pain and sorrow that unfolds as part of Sammy's tale.

"Agents didn't want to go near this book. They said, 'It's too sad, it's too real'," Walsh recalled.

"That's my point. There's nothing else like this out there."

Sammy, a mixed-breed hound, became the family's first pet, purchased from a dog pound by Walsh's husband, Eric Conrad, while they were living in Florida. Sammy became a cherished family member: when Barbara and Eric brought her home from the hospital, the dog slept next to her daughter's crib.

"She'd play doctor and wrap him in bandages and put bonnets on his head. He would just sit there. She used to sleep on him. He was her pillow," Walsh said. "He was this amazing, gentle hound who looked after her. And she considered him to be her best friend."

As pet owners know, all good things must come to an end: at 12, Sammy was diagnosed with cancer. The girls were told to enjoy their time with him, because it was drawing short. Emma was five, and Nora was three.

After the tears dried, Emma kept asking her parents why Sammy had to leave. She would run inside after school and call Sammy's name, forgetting the hound was gone. Nora sometimes got angry, shaking her fist at the sky and ordering Sammy to come back down to Earth.

Wyeth said he liked Walsh's story because it was real. "It's not cute. It's not sweet. It's kind of edgy," said Wyeth, whose works are on display at the National Gallery of Art, John F Kennedy Library and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland and Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Like Walsh, Wyeth is a dog lover.

The artist - son and grandson of the renowned painters Andrew and NC Wyeth - returns most of the 10 or 15 manuscripts he receives each year from hopeful authors. But he said Walsh's story touched him.

Opening a door to the difficult subject matter in Sammy in the Sky - now in its third printing - was the best-selling Marley and Me, a book by old friend and fellow journalist Grogan.

Librarians and veterinarians have told Walsh the book fills a niche. She hopes it helps parents, teachers and children talk about life and death, joy and grief - and helps families to find a way to celebrate a pet's life, like Walsh's family did. Indeed, books that aim to help youngsters get through the loss of a pet are few and far between, said John C New Jr, a professor of public health and outreach at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Yes, there are books aimed at children, but there aren't a lot of them," he said. "And they're not the type of book normally carried in a bookstore."

Walsh's family has moved forward after Sammy's death six years ago. The family has a new dog, a Tennessee coon hound named Jack. Initially the rescue dog barked incessantly and scared houseguests, but he has settled into life in Maine, where the family now lives.

"Now he's my best friend," said Walsh. "He sits with me. He dances with me and he runs with me. He doesn't talk back to me and he knows when I'm crazy. But he's my friend."

* David Sharp, Associated Press