Sometimes the best way to cope is to shrink something special down to the size of your palm so it won't be lost.
Katherine Paterson's book The Smallest Cow in the World is an example of how a sweet, touching story can be written for children that is both enjoyable and layered. She tells a story that a child can intuitively understand and learn a lesson fromno need to be explicit about her message because she trusts her readers (or those who are being read to) and has the literary confidence and ability to pull it off.
On the surface, it is a story about a boy who misses his favorite cow after moving away from the dairy farm he grew up on and creates an imaginary one to deal with it. Just beneath that surface, Paterson develops the themes making it an examination of loss, change, and loneliness that anyone can identify with. A depth one doesn't find in other I Can Read Books.
On his farm, Mr. Brock had two dogs, eight cats, and ninety-seven cows. One of the ninety-seven cows was Rosie.
Rosie wasn't a special cow. She was ill-temperedeven the "meanest cow in the world." But not for Marvin, who lived on the dairy farm with his parents and older sister. For Marvin she was very special. She was his friend. The others scoffed, saying it was because he didn't care for her and feed her and clean up after her and he hadn't suffered from her bovine slings and arrows like they did. But Marvin knows Rosie. That's how friends are. There's a connection. One that transcends those chores. To him, she's the "most beautiful cow in the world." Sure, he doesn't wash or milk her or shovel her manure; he hasn't been swatted with her tail or been pushed against the wall of the barn. That wouldn't matter because there's the connection, the friendship. He understands her.
Marvin understands why she's the way she is. Rosie is sad because her calf was taken away. The little tragedies of life that take place every day. We accept it; she an animal. Way of the world. There's the old line about one death being a tragedy and a million, a statistic. Abstractions simply can't hurt like the personal. We hide behind euphemism and habit (the "great deadener" according to Samuel Beckett)"Mr. Brock always takes the calves." Don't personalizethe girl from Charlotte's Web was warned not to name the pig. It's how a community functions. The personal must be pushed back for the good of the group. But Marvin seems to know without the benefit of adult articulation that without a personal stake 'what good is community?'
But Mr. Brock is too old. The farm, the cowsRosiemust be sold into an uncertain future. He can't take care of them like he once did. Community fades and Marvin and his family have to move. But when one pulls up a plant to relocate it, the roots still carry soil from which the plant grew and flourished. Friends left behind are the hardest things to reconcile with phrases like 'for the best.' His parents try to console him by artificially creating distance and abstractionshe was the "meanest cow in the world."
"Marvin cried louder than ever."
The world does not revolve around anyone but has no qualms about revolving without you. Sure there is a new home and new herd of cows (21). But not Rosie. His family moved on but Marvin could not. He was friendless. When he was ripped out of the garden, Rosie still clung to his roots and couldn't be separated out. A problem with change and those who champion it is that they often ignore, dismiss, disregard the value of what came before. If it's change, it must be good. The past is behind you. Look toward the future. The way of the world. "Mr. Brock always takes the calves."
Rosie wasn't perfect but perfection isn't what friendship is about nor is it even desirable. It's just a path, not a destination and Rosie walked with Marvin. Marvin's "calf" had been taken away. He needed her back.
There began to be incidents. Childlike graffiti of a cow on the side of the house, an uprooted garden, a messed up room. We know who did it but he denies it. "Rosie did it." She's clearly not there but Marvin insistsshe's a very tiny cow now. Carefully held in the safety of Marvin's palm. Rosie's truly the meanest cow in the world now, not the most beautiful. She didn't want to move and doesn't like being little. "Rosie" has become corrupted and is as impotent and inconsequential as Marvin feels. "It's no fun being little." Striking out is the only way to assert some sort of control, some order on a world that makes you so tiny. Like the witch Marvin claims shrunk Rosie for being her irascible self. Power that a cow or a small boy simply cannot stand up against.
He cradles her as he tells the story of the new owner who punished Rosie and made her a tiny, angry cow. His parents sympathize. Suggest she needs a barn of her own: a safe place where she won't be stepped on or get into trouble. His father gives him a small brown bottle for Rosie to live in. She likes her new home and will no longer be angry. Marvin will keep her safe. She won't be sold away.
Marvin wouldn't part with his tiny Rosie. He took her little brown home with him wherever he went and spoke to her, cared for her. But that was summer and the earth turns and the seasons change. School was going to begin. Unlike his sister May, Marvin still had no friends other than Rosie, the smallest cow in the world. She is to travel with himshe will be the smartest cow in the worldto school every day. But there's nothing like the cruelty of children and Marvin is mocked as is his sister by association: "the girl with the crazy little brother." The others moo at them. May's friend yells at them, tells them they have "no imagination." Not like Marvin. It gives May an idea.
She tells Marvin that Rosie can't go to school anymore. She's going to calve. Marvin agrees. And this time no one will take the calf away and Marvin will always be there to protect them. As long as they are safe in the bottle, there's no need to carry them around. The memory of his friend is safe. May says that Rosie is now "the most beautiful cow in the world." They all love her and her calf and if they move, both tiny cows will accompany their family. Never left behind again.
No matter how small she is or where she lives or if she's smart or dumb, Rosie will have Dad and Mom and you and me and the smallest calf in the world. She will never be lonely again.
"That's good," said Marvin.
Deep down that's all we really want. To never be lonely again.
Katherine Paterson, The Smallest Cow in the World, 1988.