The bond between a child and his pet is like no other, and Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood depict that closeness—and the loss of it—in their picture book Harry and Hopper, about a boy and his dog.
When Harry comes home from school to discover that Hopper has died in an accident, the book shows how the boy comes to terms with his grief through Hopper’s night-time visits. Here, Wild and Blackwood discuss how they approach the themes of love and loss for children.
For a list of books about grieving a pet, click here.
What prompted you to make this a father-son story?
Margaret Wild: Plenty of stories feature single mothers and children, but not so many have the father as the prime carer. Yet I know what wonderful parents single fathers can make, so I wanted to write about the close bond between a father and his son. If I’d given Harry a mother, the relationship between him and his father would have been more diffused and possibly less strong. I didn’t want to spell out what had happened to Harry’s mother, preferring that readers make up their own minds.
Nowhere in the text does it suggest Harry’s father is a firefighter. How did you decide on his profession?
Freya Blackwood: I did do a lot of thinking about why it was only Harry and his father, what Harry’s dad would do for work if he was the sole parent and had to be around to look after Harry, how much money his dad would have earned being a single parent. I had decided they would live somewhere like the Blue Mountains in Australia. In the Blue Mountains, there are wonderful old houses, some still a bit dilapidated, with large backyards perfect for a dog. The Blue Mountains are renowned for their bushfires, and I figured Harry’s dad just might be the type to be a fireman. A fireman has a distinctive uniform and a heroic quality about them—perfect solution.
Was it important for Harry to keep Hopper’s death a secret from his friends and also, initially, not to discuss it with his father, for the sake of Hopper’s nightly visits? Did you give a lot of thought as to how you’d convey Harry’s grief?
MW: I guess I drew on my own feelings of loss when one of my brothers died as a child. I remember not being able to talk to anyone about it at first—it all seemed too unreal and shocking and private. Before I could share this grief with even a close friend, I had to try to make sense of it myself and come to some sort of acceptance.
It’s amazing how quickly you establish the bond between Harry and Hopper visually, and then you cement it with the way you suggest the passage of time in panel illustrations.
FB: I considered how Harry and Hopper had met. Whether they had chosen the dog from the pound, from among many other different dogs, or whether Hopper had chosen them. So in the end, Hopper chose Harry. The bond was immediately set by the first text page in the book. I did many sketches for the image you refer to. Initially the illustration wasn’t broken up into frames, and I wasn’t showing the passing of time so well. Once I broke it up into the separate frames it worked much better. The changing of seasons made it more obvious.
Why was it important for Harry to say goodbye to Hopper alone—to come to that by himself, without his father’s help?
MW: Because Hopper’s death was sudden and unexpected, Harry had no chance to prepare for Hopper’s death as he would have done if the dog had slowly become old and sick. I wanted Harry to gradually accept Hopper’s death and to say goodbye to him on his own terms and in his own way. In the last scene, I felt it was necessary to make this a private moment between Harry and Hopper. I think it gives Harry a certain maturity and independence, as well as showing respect for him and his feelings.
FB: [In that final wordless scene,] I’d simply wanted to show Harry accepting that Hopper was dead. Having been able to say goodbye to Hopper in his own way meant he could find the strength to see where Hopper was buried and begin to acknowledge what happens when something dies. By showing the scene from a distance you allow any number of feelings to come to the reader. It doesn’t feel intrusive—Harry has been left alone to deal with the sadness. It removes the reader from Harry so they can begin to think about the issue for themselves.
Harry and Hopper
Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood
Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan / Jan. 18, 2011 / 9780312642617 / $16.99