1. The Red Pony (John Steinbeck, 1933)
Whence comes the tradition of heartrending children's classics in which a central character spends an entire book caring for and loving a very special animal, only to have it die in the end, usually granting life lessons, hard-won maturity, and heavy-duty pathos? Possibly from John Steinbeck's seminal, semi-autobiographical classic The Red Pony, in which a boy's beloved and highly symbolic pony loses a gruesome, graphic battle with illness. Like every other book on this list but one, this depressing classic book later became a depressing classic movie.
2. Old Yeller (Fred Gipson, 1956)
Ask 10 random people about the greatest popular-entertainment-related trauma of their childhoods, and you'll probably find it's an even split between the death of Bambi's mom and the death of Old Yeller, a brave farm dog who redeems himself for bad behavior by saving his master's life. As a reward, he eventually gets killed by said traumatized young master, who manfully bites the bullet and saves Yeller from hydrophobia the only way he can. Fortunately, Old Yeller had a sequel–er, a son–to carry on the family tradition.
3. The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1938)
4. Ring Of Bright Water (Gavin Maxwell, 1960)
In a notable break from the line of stories about loyal dogs and wolves who go from beloved pet to moldering carcass, Gavin Maxwell's Ring Of Bright Water is a real-life-inspired story about a stodgy Brit, his fun-loving, insatiably curious pet otter, and their new life together in the Scottish highlands. The 1969 MGM film adaptation is sweet, low-key, almost naturalistic magic, right up to the point where a Scots road-worker offhandedly bludgeons the otter to death with a pickaxe, and is then astonished at the horror of the woman who was taking it for a stroll. "It was only an otter!" he protests, not that the millions of shrieking children in the theaters likely heard him.
5. Julie Of The Wolves (Jean Craighead George, 1972)
6. J.T. (Jane Wagner, 1969)
7. Where The Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls, 1961)
Where The Red Fern Grows yanks extra-hard on the heartstrings, with not one but two loyal, beloved hounds dying at the end–one to save his master, the other out of grief for the first. Like so many of these books, it's a beautiful but anguished paean to love, devotion, and sacrifice, with a lengthy buildup in which the book's boy protagonist works his ass off for two years to buy the dogs–a pair of purebred coon hounds–and spends much of the rest of the book thoroughly enjoying his childhood with them before it comes to an end with their deaths–which, in addition to saving his life, enable his family to achieve a long-held dream. Yay.
8. Sounder (William H. Armstrong, 1970)
9. Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat, 1963)