Rodney Was a Tortoise
Rodney Was a Tortoise
When Bernadette dressed up as queen of the castle, she made a tiny crown for Rodney. It took almost all day for Rodney to look up, but she could tell he loved it.
Bernadette’s best friend is her pet tortoise Rodney. She takes Rodney to school on pet day, plays card games and dress-up with him, reads him books, and sleeps beside his tank every night. But Rodney is old and getting even slower than normal, and he dies. Bernadette is devastated and grieves for her lost friend. Another kid spots Bernadette alone, acknowledges her grief, and the two become fast friends.
Rodney Was a Tortoise is a lovely addition to the canon of dead-pet picture books. Because readers are privy to Bernadette and Rodney’s relationship, the impact of his death is strong. Readers get a very authentic portrait of grief in which Bernadette thinks of nothing but Rodney while life continues normally around her. In her grief, she adopts Rodney’s characteristics, which is a clever way for the text to both express Bernadette’s feelings and remember her friend. Bernadette becomes slow, pulls her sweater up around her ears, puts on the “protective shell” of her green jacket, sits still and quiet on a rock, and crawls “deeper and deeper into her shell”.
Rodney’s actual death is a small part of the narrative and is not sugar-coated. Bernadette’s Mom states, “I think Rodney is dead”, in a very matter-of-fact way that is refreshingly honest. Besides this moment, there is minimal involvement of parents or adults in this book. No one tells Bernadette to just get over it - she is allowed to grieve her best friend.
The illustrations, in watercolor and pencil, complement the text. Observant readers will notice Bernadette’s new friend, Amar, watching her before he approaches. Thoughtful details like the decor in Bernadette’s room and the garden outside her apartment add visual interest and depth.
When Amar approaches Bernadette, he notes how sad she must feel about Rodney. This gives space for the two to share memories and for Amar to talk of a similar experience. In this way, Bernadette’s grief is not buried or shoved away, but acknowledged, and it is this and her new friend that allows her to heal.
Grief is complex and different for everyone, but this gentle book may resonate, bring comfort, and help children work through their feelings.
Toby Cygman is a librarian in Winnipeg, Manitoba.