A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a celebrated American artist came together Sunday in Chadds Ford in the name of a beloved dog - and for families who will outlive their pets.
Jamie Wyeth never met the hound named Sammy, but when writer Barbara Walsh placed a blind call to him - she was expecting to reach an assistant - Wyeth answered, then listened as she talked about a children's book she had written to help families cope with loss after a pet dies.
Wyeth, the third generation of the Brandywine-area dynasty of artists and an animal lover whose notable works include a finely detailed painting of a pig, was interested.
On Sunday, Wyeth and Walsh sat in a ground-floor room of the Brandywine River Museum and signed copies of Sammy in the Sky for hours. Visitors lined up in the meeting room and patiently waited, copies of the book (Candlewood Press, $16.99) open to the title page and ready to sign.
Sammy in the Sky is about love and loss and dealing with a void. Walsh's husband, Eric Conrad, bought Sammy in 1992 for $16, including shots, from a pound in Florida - "the best investment he ever made," she told book buyers at the museum.
Sammy died after being found to have cancer 12 years later when the family had moved to Maine, where they now live. Their daughters - Emma, 5 at the time, and Nora, 3 - were struggling to cope with Sammy's death. Like many children, Walsh said, their daughters' first experience with death was through the loss of a pet.
"As they began talking, I wrote things down - I'm a reporter, so it comes naturally," said Walsh, whose articles on the prison furlough system in Massachusetts won her a Pulitzer in 1988 when she was a reporter at the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune. "I said, 'This is a book.' "
Not an easy one for publishers, who Walsh says wanted no part of a book for children about the death of a pet.
" 'It's too real, it's too sad, it won't sell,' they said," not only to her, but also after Wyeth also came aboard.
Meanwhile, another book about a dog that eventually passed on, former Inquirer columnist John Grogan's Marley and Me, was heating up at the bookstores, which helped turn the tide.
Sammy in the Sky, with 20 illustrations by Wyeth, whose originals in watercolor, acrylic, and pencil are displayed currently at the Brandywine River Museum, "deals with a tough subject," Wyeth said, "and not in a cutesy or pandering way. It's not dumbed-down. The simplicity of it is what attracted me. It's a simple statement with powerful emotions."
His drawings mirror the story - first of happy days with Sammy, then watchful after the bad news from the veterinarian, and, finally, the sadness after Sammy is gone. At some points, the publisher sought a softer landing at the book's end, but Walsh and Wyeth successfully resisted.
After Sammy's death, the publishers asked for the color of the sky to brighten. "They told me the sky's a little dark and said that's a little depressing," Wyeth recounted. "I said, 'Well, it's the death of a dog. Are you kidding?' I mean, kids aren't stupid." The sky remains dark.
Wyeth, 65, whose farm is in Birmingham Township, Chester County, has always lived around animals, and he remembers his first dog, Buffet, who died when he was young. Others in line at the book-signing remembered pets, too.
Tari Manigault was there with her son, Jordan, 5, whose baby-sitter's dog recently died of cancer. "I just read it in line while I was waiting," she said of the book, "and it made me think of her, and I almost cried." She and Jordan's grandmother Nolla Cox had come from Newark, Del., and bought seven books, mostly as Christmas gifts.
"I had a friend with a black lab - also named Sam - that died this fall," said Tory Windley of North East, Md., who was buying books with her sister, Denise Richmond, of Kennett Square.
Said Walsh, "It irritates me when publishers put on that something is appropriate for ages 4 to 8. This one is appropriate from the in the womb to death. People of all ages tell me, 'I had a cat or a dog or I'm remembering the death of a person.' "