This Halloween, I rediscovered one of my favorite picture books, the whimsical, heartbreaking Bone Dog by author/illustrator Eric Rohmann.
One night under a full moon, Gus’s faithful dog and best friend, Ella, tells him she’s getting older, but promises to be with him no matter what happens. Ella passes away soon after, leaving Gus so sad he never wants to leave the house. When Halloween comes around, however, he pulls on his costume and sets off trick-or-treating by himself. The spread showing Gus standing alone in a graveyard holding his candy hits especially hard, due to Rohmann’s muted colors, beautifully stylized imagery and evocative phrases like, “The clouds swallowed the moon.”
Gus’s loneliness is interrupted when a band of wise-cracking skeletons rise from their graves to surround him. They invite him to join them in a raucous danse macabre, until they figure out that he’s not a real skeleton, just a boy in costume, and they decide to eat him instead.
Just as silhouetted skeleton fingers reach across the page to snatch Gus, Ella, now the Bone Dog, descends from the sky surrounded by an ethereal glow. With Ella’s help, Gus frightens off the skeletons, and the two friends return to the same moonlit hill they sat on when Ella was dying. When Gus asks if he’ll ever see Ella again, she repeats that “a promise made under a full moon cannot be broken,” and readers know that she’ll be with Gus always, if only in spirit.
This is a perfect, subtle, simple and yet expansive book on finding solace and wonder in the death of a beloved pet. Like all great storytellers, Rohmann helps readers understand and transcend one of life’s most distressing situations.