One of the wonderful parts of falling in love with books is finding the “me too!” moments when you’re reading. Authors strive to create realistic emotions and reactions, so that readers can identify with the characters. It’s one of the best parts of enjoying a well-written book. I just didn’t expect to find such connection to a stuffed toy buffalo.

Today’s book love is Emily Jenkins’ final installment in the TOYS GO OUT series, TOYS COME HOME. It is illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, who can make absolutely anything odd and poignant and funny all at once.

TOYS COME HOME is a prequel, if you will, the tale of how the now-beloved bossy StingRay, ebullient Plastic, and brave Lumphy (the buffalo), all came to the Little Girl’s house. If this all sounds too precious for words and is starting to make your teeth ache from sweetness, consider one of my favorite lines in the first book (TOYS GO OUT): ‘Why don’t you shut your buffalo mouth? Your buffalo mouth is too whiny!” It is following by a brief buffalo-stingray scuffle and there are some teeth marks at the end.

In fact, what I love about these books is that, while there are moments of tremendous sweetness, these characters are just as bossy, selfish, scared, thoughtless, and un-sweet as the rest of us. They are perhaps more lovable, (since most of us are not made of soft blue plush), but no less flawed. And Jenkins writes with a clear message that nothing is simple. An unpleasant stuffed animal gets destroyed in the washing machine, allowing StingRay to be promoted to on-the-bed favorite. Does she rejoice? Should she feel guilty? This question, and others like it, are not resolved easily, and children will enjoy the slight moral ambiguity of the characters.

I loved all these books. I read them out loud to Small Daughter and Large Son, and sometimes had to stop reading because I was laughing too hard. But it is the end of this last book that truly won my heart. Because Lumphy, the noble buffalo, is suffering from nothing less than pure existential angst. And truly, I can sympathize. He is stuck on the question Why are we here? Lumphy is up all night, night after night, unable to sleep. He wonders “why are any of them here…it is scary that StingRay doesn’t know, and scary that there may not be an answer at all.”

One night his friends can’t find him (the animals move around after the humans are asleep). He is downstairs, watching television with lights on, because, he says, “I have dread. It has to do with too much dark. And not knowing why we’re here. And not sleeping.”

Well. Anyone who has ever battled depression knows the Dread. And reading this book aloud, knowing that this fight is one that both I and my family members have fought, made it all the more poignant. And while I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone, I will say that the way Lumphy finds his way out of his Dread made me well up with tears, just a little bit.

So here’s to Lumphy, and to his loyal friends StingRay and Plastic, and to all those who help their loved ones fight the Dread.