No Dead Dogs: contemporary dog classics for middle-grade readers

When I tell people my next book is a dog story for grades four and up, the question I invariably get asked is, “Does the dog die?” And they ask me this with such a pained, apprehensive look on their faces! Trust me, as a passionate dog lover and dog literature reader, I understand the question and the expression on the face. As much as I love the classics like Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows,and Sounder, as a librarian, I’m reluctant to recommend them to young readers.

Fortunately, there have been some wonderful dog stories written for middle grade readers that are destined to become classics and the dog is alive and healthy at the end of the book! Here are some contemporary dog classics I find myself recommending to my young library patrons over and over:

Ribsy, by Beverly Cleary

Forbidden to ride in the Huggins’ clean new car, Henry’s dog, Ribsy, runs after it until he is exhausted, forcing the family to stop and let him in. From then on he experiences one disaster after another. While shut up in the car at the mall, he accidentally hits the automatic window control, wiggles out and unsuccessfully searches for his owners. Confused, he jumps into another new-smelling car by mistake and goes home with the Dingleys, who give him a violet-scented bubble bath. Deeply insulted, Ribsy escapes and tries to find his way home. He meets many new people along the way, including a kindly old lady who dresses him in a hat and pipe, a bunch of school children who share their lunches, and a lonely boy harassed by the mean manager of his apartment building. After a dramatic rescue from a fire escape, Ribsy is reunited joyfully with his family. Written in an easy, conversational style and filled with funny situations and sly satire, the fast moving story, although set at least forty years ago, I find kids love this story and this dog as much as ever. Maybe that’s because Ribsy is the sweet, spirited embodiment of hundreds of beloved, scruffy children’s pets, back in the days before leash laws and animal control officers cramped their style.

Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo

Just last night, I had a lengthy conversation with a 5th grader at the library about how wonderful Kate DiCamillo is and, more specifically, her wonderful Because of Winn Dixie. In Because of Winn Dixie,  Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket — and comes out with a dog. With the help of her new pal, whom she names Winn-Dixie, Opal makes a variety of new, interesting friends and spends the summer collecting stories about them and thinking about her absent mother. But because of Winn-Dixie, or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship — and forgiveness — can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm. Recalling the fiction of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers, here is a funny, poignant, and unforgettable coming-of-age novel. My young friend and I agreed the book is a million zillion times better than the movie!

Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech

Given that my young patron loved Kate DiCamillo’s books, I recommended to her one of my other favorite authors, Sharon Creech. I added to her growing stack of books Love that Dog. Written in free verse, Love that Dog is told from the view point of Jack. Jack hates poetry. Only girls write it and every time he tries to, his brain feels empty. But his teacher, Ms. Stretchberry, won’t stop giving her class poetry assignments—and Jack can’t avoid them. But then something amazing happens. The more he writes, the more he learns he does have something to say, especially when it comes to a certain dog.

With a fresh and deceptively simple style, acclaimed author Sharon Creech tells a story with enormous heart. Love That Dog shows how one boy finds his own voice with the help of a teacher, a writer, a pencil, some yellow paper, and of course, a dog.

Trouble with Tuck, by Theodore Taylor

Taylor is probably best known for his award-winning The Cay. But Trouble with Tuck is a classic dog story that has every bit as much heart and action. Helen’s best friend is Tuck, a loving, playful golden Labrador. They go everywhere together. He brings her out of her shell and is the catalyst for her increasing self-confidence. Twice, he saves her life. When Tuck is three years old, Helen discovers he is having trouble with his sight. The vet confirms that Tuck is going blind. Two options offered by the vet; putting Tuck down or giving him to medical researchers; are rejected by the whole family. Desperate, Helen contacts a guide dog school, but is turned down. After Tuck is hit by a car, his days of freedom and wandering the neighborhood must be replaced with confinement to the yard. Chaining Tuck could break his spirit–and Helen’s. Enter Lady Daisy, a retired Seeing Eye dog. With the help of Lady Daisy and a book about elephants, Helen is able to train Tuck to depend on this canine friend to be his new eyes. Every animal lover can appreciate this tale of shared devotion and love, but I also love tell my patrons that it’s based on a true story!

A Dog’s Life: the autobiography of a stray, by Ann M. Martin

Okay, so you know this name as the author of the ubiquitous Babysitter’s Club series, right? But she’s also the author of some amazing, beautifully written novels for middle graders and teens, including A Dog’s Life. Normally, I don’t like “talking dog” stories: I find them too precious. But Martin tells this dog’s story in a voice that is both dignified and true. Squirrel is not like most dogs. Born a stray, she must make her own way in the world, facing busy highways, changing seasons, and humans both gentle and brutal. Her life story, in her own words, is marked by loss, but also by an inspiring instinct to survive. And when it seems she will roam the woods and country roads alone forever, Squirrel makes two friends who, in very different ways, define her fate. This is not a bouncy, easy story. I tend to recommend it to older middle graders or dog-loving teens and adults. It is a haunting and hopeful story.

Martin has since written a sequel to A Dog’s Life titled Everything for a Dog.

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Eleven-year-old Marty Preston loves to spend time up in the hills behind his home near Friendly, West Virginia. Sometimes he takes his .22 rifle to see what he can shoot, like some cans lined up on a rail fence. Other times he goes up early in the morning just to sit and watch the fox and deer. But one summer Sunday, Marty comes across something different on the road just past the old Shiloh schoolhouses—a young beagle—and the trouble begins. What do you do when a dog you suspect is being mistreated runs away and comes to you? When it is someone else’s dog? When the man who owns him has a gun? This is Marty’s problem, and he finds it is one he has to face alone. When his solution gets too big for him to handle, things become more frightening still. Marty puts his courage on the line, and discovers in the process that it is not always easy to separate right from wrong. Sometimes, however, you do almost anything to save a dog. In the tradition of Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows comes this boy-and-his-dog story set in rural West Virginia. And the dog lives!

Bobbie Pyron is the author of the teen novel The Ring (WestSide Books). Her own middle grade dog story, A Dog’s Way Home, will be published in winter of 2011 by HarperCollins. Her own three dogs are waiting for her to finish this blog post so they can all go for a hike. Visit her at her website www.bobbiepyron.com

26 Responses to No Dead Dogs: contemporary dog classics for middle-grade readers

  1. No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman is a must! The protagonist is tired of reading books where the dog always dies at the end. When he writes an unflattering book report about his teacher’s favorite book (in which the dog dies), he is sentenced to detention until he writes a flattering report (something his truthfulness will not allow him to do).

  2. Okay, yes, the dog does die in LOVE THAT DOG, so my apologies! I included it because when I think of dog stories published in the last 25 or so years, that’s one that always comes to mind.

  3. Ummm, Have you read these books? Because the dog is definitely dead in Love That Dog. That’s kind of the whole crux of the book. Mind you, it’s a wonderful book and Creech brilliantly tells the story of a boy who is initially reluctant about poetry but eventually comes to love it. But the dog is dead and personally, I weeped buckets.

  4. Thanks for everyone’s comments on my posting! I’m going to have to read Sheep! One classic I didn’t mention (because I was trying to do contemporary “classics”, is Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune. These books were the precursors to the Lassie books, written in the 1920s. They are absolutely charming and funny and so very heartfelt.

  5. I love dog stories, both the “Dog Lives” and “Dog Dies” stories. I’m rereading Island of the Blue Dolphins, and love the relationship between the girl and the wild dog.

  6. I read Because of Winn Dixie and Shiloh. I would add How to Steal a Dog to the list. It was one of the Texas Bluebonnet books.

  7. Any writer who has ever loved a dog has a dog story in her. Mine comes out next year, Me and Jack.

    There are two dog stories I thought were wonderful and I would add them to the list if only I could remember their titles! One was about a boy who accidentally switches places with a dog, and he gets a lot of insight on people he thought were nice and vice versa.

    The other story was about a small dog named Mike who had street smarts and was the leader of a gang of dogs. One by one his friends got adopted, which only hardened him toward humans. Until the day came that someone fell in love with him. It was nicely done, didn’t feel predictable.

  8. I agree, as a writer of middle grade dog stories, I also think it sucks when the dog dies! Thanks for this great list

  9. Another great “doggy” book, for older middle grade readers, is Notes From A Liar And Her Dog by Jennifer Choldenko. The dog doesn’t die but this book made me cry. It’s one very fine piece of writing!

  10. One of my favorite recent dog books is Marlane Kennedy’s THE DOG DAYS OF CHARLOTTE HAYES. It’s a nice twist on the old story of a kid who longs for a pet. In Charlotte’s case, she wants to find the family pet, Beauregard (a giant Saint Bernard,) a different home.

  11. But the dog DOES die in LOVE THAT DOG (or, has previously died, I guess). My 8-year-old son read it and just cried and cried and cried. It’s a beautiful book – one of my top five favorites of all time – but it took my son days to get over it. It was bittersweet for me to see him so moved, and I loved that a book could affect him so deeply, but he was truly devastated.