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Review of the Day: The End of Something Wonderful by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, ill. George Ermos

When The Funeral by Matt James was first released, I showed it to a woman I knew at a dinner. Upon seeing it for the first time her face contorted into a moue of disgust and she proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, “Clearly he has never lost somebody important to him.” Which was (A) not really the point and (B) a clear-cut example of somebody judging a book by its cover and missing out on one of the truly great picture books of that year. But I guess I wasn’t all that surprised because when it comes to death and children’s literature, people are apt to get a bit wonky. I am of the mindset that there are as many ways to confront the subject as there are stars in the sky. Dead pets in particular offer an interesting challenge. Some books, like the highly skilled Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko and Mari Kanstad Johnsen can touch the heartstrings without getting schmaltzy. For my part, I like a book with good practical advice, some honestly touching moments, and, yes, a bit of humor. A book like The End of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide to a Backyard Funeral by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic. Euphemisms and platitudes can take a hike. This book proves that there’s more than one way to funeral.

It may happen that something you loved, and owned, and took care of, has died. When that happens the “Something Wonderful” could certainly have a backyard funeral. But how do you hold one? Four children say goodbye to a goldfish, a turtle, a hamster, and a pillbug, respectively. Each finds the right way to say goodbye, and, through trial and error, occasionally the wrong way as well. From shoe boxes to burials at sea to practical advice on why digging up your Something Wonderful is invariably a bad idea, the message throughout the book is that it is healthy to acknowledge your sadness, it is fine to grieve in your own way, and sometimes the end of something wonderful will allow you to “begin something wonderful again.”

One assignment I encountered quite often as a children’s librarian was when teachers would ask the kids in their classes to go to the library to find “a how-to-book”. The first few times I encountered this query I was so flummoxed that I think I ended up handing the poor Kindergartners weighty tomes on how to build tree forts and how to construct marshmallow cannons. Only later did I realize that our picture book shelves abound with how-to guides on every possible subject. Interestingly, though, Lucianovic’s book is the very first how-to funeral book I’ve seen. Why is that? After all, backyard funerals often serve as a child’s rite of passage. Don’t they deserve a guide for that hard time? If not they, then whom? There is another gap that this book fills as well. Years ago I was tasked with making a list of “the best” picture books of all time. There were categories to fill, and one of them was “Dead Pets”. We had to find dead pet picture books and, naturally, we tried to find books that filled that need and showed a diverse range of skin tones. To our horror, no such books existed at the time. With its four protagonists from an array of racial and ethnic backgrounds, this book fills that need as well.

Part of what I enjoy so much about Lucianovic’s writing in this story is her tendency to keep the story light, but not ignore the very real feelings a child has when they find their “something wonderful” has died. The story acknowledges that when you have your backyard funeral you may wish to say something or you may wish to keep your thoughts to yourself, and both of those decisions are the right ones. She also peppers the book with lines that give a bit of caring to something that might otherwise seem jokey. The dead pill bug could easily become a running gag, but the author gives it just as much respect as the fish or turtle. For example, when discussing what you might place in a the shoebox with your dead pet, she says “A guinea pig might like an orange nub of carrot. A fish might appreciate a few drops of water. A pill bug might be grateful for a smooth rock, cool in your hand.” Love how she put that.

I’d not encountered the art of George Ermos before, and at first I mistook his style for that of Tom Knight. Both employ a lot of humor, though I think Ermos is more prone to hiding side details in the edges of his images. Look at that first spread of the four children discovering their pets are dead. The boy with the goldfish stands beneath a painting of three fishies. The girl with the turtle has it on a ramp with a skateboard. Behind them are awards and trophies that have clearly been won by Skid, the Skating Tortoise (as he is named). And the boy who sat on his own pill bug owns a wide array of insects and creepy crawlies. Indeed, he appears to have butterflies pinned up on a board, so the death of a pillbug probably wouldn’t upset him that much, but we’ll overlook that detail. The truly remarkable thing is that Ermos matches Lucianovic in tone. Whether it’s a perpetually peeved orange cat (who pops up throughout the book regularly) or a half-hearted attempt to fit a skateboard into a shoebox, he knows what he’s doing.

I regret to inform you that not everybody likes this book, however. As a general rule I eschew reading reviews of the books I’m going to review, since I like to keep my thoughts neat and orderly. However, I could not help but notice a high level of vitriol and venom emanating from the professional review journal Kirkus when their reviewer caught wind of this title. If I may simplify their thoughts, what Kirkus appears to dislike about it is the notion of mixing humor with as serious a subject as a beloved pet’s passing. They call the tone of the book “flippant” and dislike the ending where the turtle’s owner sees a lobster in a fish market and is clearly in love once more. It is worth noting that the book does not cover dead cats or dogs or large animals of any sort. The deceased “wonderfuls” listed in the text are “a guinea pig or a fish. Perhaps a pill bug.” So I would agree with Kirkus that this wouldn’t be the book to hand a child who has lost a cat or dog necessarily. It is better suited for older children who have taken care of smaller critters with limited lifespans. I would also disagree vociferously that wry humor has no place in a book of this sort. This is not The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. It is far more in line with titles like Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown’s Goldfish Ghost or A Funeral in the Bathroom by Kalli Dakos. Actually, the idea Kirkus discards of handing this to a kid before a pet dies (but when you can read the writing on the wall) isn’t half a bad notion.

And look, it’s not as if I don’t sympathize with the Kirkus reviewer on some level. Their reaction is pretty similar to the reaction I had when I read Tim’s Goodbye by Steve Salerno and Flat Rabbit by Bárdur Oskarsson. In both books the animal that has passed is lofted into the sky, begging the obvious question of what happens when some poor schmuck walking down the streets gets beamed on the noggin by a deceased critter that has descended from the heavens. As I mentioned before, everyone has a different reaction to death, particularly when it is portrayed in a book for children. The best use of this book, then, is to hand it to the child who will appreciate it most. If you have a four-year-old sobbing uncontrollably over the family cocker spaniel, then I agree that this isn’t the right book. But all deaths are different, all kids are different, and all books about death are different. There is a place, in this world, for this precise book.

As with all children’s books on delicate subjects, you must determine the right book for the right reader. That is the children’s librarian’s creed. At one point in the story you hear about the songs you can play at a funeral. Some will make people cry. Some will make people laugh. “Sometimes people laugh and cry at funerals because that can happen too. Even without songs.” Sometimes picture books about dead pets and funerals also make their readers laugh and cry. In her writing, Lucianovic uses humor to break up the serious moments that speak to a child’s sense of loss. There’s a particularly lovely passage near the end where the author acknowledges that when you’ve finished your funeral, it might be hard to know how to end because, “it might feel like it isn’t. And maybe it isn’t.” It’s up to you, the parent or guardian or teacher or librarian, to figure out whether this book fits your child. Because when this book meets with the child that is ready for it, that’s when you’ll truly encounter “Something Wonderful.”

On shelves September 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.