Is a favourite book of yours out of print?
Grace Hallworth launches a new series.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney
by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad, was published by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd in 1971.
Children have an optimistic view of life so death strikes at the heart of their belief that everything exists forever.
In his work on the language and thought processes of pre-school children, Chukovsky exemplifies ways in which young people `recreate optimism’ in order to maintain psychological balance when they encounter death. A three-year-old believes that
`They bury old people – that is, they plant them in the ground and from them grow little children like flowers.’
This concept is analogous to that employed in traditional literature – myth, legend, folk and fairy-tale – in which death is not an end but a necessary phase in the process of rebirth and transformation.
Judith Viorst’s classic story, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, is a portrayal of a small child’s experience of the death of a pet. It begins with direct simplicity:
‘My cat Barney died last Friday.
I was very sad.
I cried, and I didn’t watch television
I cried, and I didn’t eat my chicken or
even the chocolate pudding.
I went to bed, and I cried.’
The child is encouraged by its mother to think of ten good things about the cat to tell at the funeral. Memories flood back:
‘Barney was brave…
And smart and funny and clean.
Also cuddly and handsome,
and he only once ate a bird.
It was sweet… to hear him purr in
And sometimes he slept on my tummy
and kept it warm.
Those are all good things said my mother,
but I just count nine.’
Later on the child’s father explains how the seeds he is planting in the ground will get food and shelter so they can grow into trees and shrubs with stems and leaves and flowers.
‘Things change in the ground, said my father.
In the ground everything changes.’
And so the child discovers the tenth good thing about Barney.
In reconciling the stark reality of death with nature’s extraordinary recycling process, the author presents a nice balance between the rational and imaginative elements within the child. Viorst is perceptive to the child’s concerns and responses and treat the encounter with death sensitively but without condescension.
Annie, the little girl from next door believes that
… Barney was in heaven, with lots of
cats and angels,
drinking cream and eating tins of tuna.
I said Barney was in the ground…
Tell her who’s right, I asked Father…
Maybe Barney’s in heaven, my father
Aha, said Annie, and stuck her tongue
out at me.
And maybe, said my father, Barney
We don’t know too much about heaven,
he told Annie.
We can’t be absolutely sure that it’s
But Viorst is also aware of the need for laughter as well as tears and relieves the trauma of death with gentle humour as well as optimism:
‘At the end of the funeral we sang a song
We couldn’t remember any cat songs,
so we sang one about a pussy willow.
Even my father knew the words.’
A true storyteller, Viorst has a keen ear for the rhythms of language which border on the poetic and make this an ideal story for sharing with a group of children. Her spare style, repetition, structure and ordering of sentences on the page are features which help make this book accessible to the beginner reader.
‘In the morning my mother wrapped
Barney in a yellow scarf.
My father buried Barney in the ground
by a tree in the garden.
Annie, my friend from next door, came
over with flowers.
And I told good things about Barney.’
This description of the funeral for a dead pet, which parallels the ritual adults act out, provides creative release and a coming to terms with loss.
Erik Blegvad’s illustrations – black-and-white line drawings and cross-hatching – reflect the sombre mood of the story. The emphasis of cross-hatching for the indoor scenes makes an effective contrast with the plain black-and-white line drawings used mainly for the outdoor scenes. But his forte lies in his sensitivity about what should be left out and what clearly defined. His skill in complementing, as well as reflecting, the story is an added appeal to this unusual book.
I’ve used this deceptively simply-told story with children from six to nine years and it never fails to provoke a stream of tales and anecdotes, many of which are humorous as well as sad. Like myth it has a textured quality but its real strength and wide appeal lies in the way it presents death, which is shown to have a function and meaning.
The author has been tacit about the chronicler’s identity, never declaring whether `I’ is a boy or girl. The child becomes a representative figure of every child moved to enact or identify with the story’s events. Thus the sombre illustrations, so expressive of the mood and style of the story, enhance the text’s more explicit statement.
Grace Hallworth was born and brought up in Trinidad. She has lived in Britain for many years working as a librarian, storyteller and writer. This month Mammoth publish two paperback collections by her – A Web of Stories (0 7497 0553 1, £2.99) and Cric Crac (0 7497 1717 3, £2.99).