Wednesday, 18 July 2012

One Girl And Her Dog: Top Dog Stories in Children's Fiction - by Emma Barnes

Some themes crop up over and over in children’s literature. My new book takes lift-off from one of them: the powerful bond that exists between girl (or boy) and their pet dog.

Why are dogs so important to children? Although they plead to have them, in practise most parents know it will be they who do most of the work, while dogs often work out where their walks and sustenance are coming from, and relegate the junior members to mere puppy rank. Yet despite that, from Lassie to Eva Ibbotson’s last novel, there remains something special about the relationship between child and hound.

In my new book, Wolfie, Lucie has always wanted a dog, and her wish is finally granted when her Uncle turns up with a large, toothy, furry “dog”. But is it a dog? Lucie is not sure, although the grown-ups (never good at seeing what is under their noses) mock her claim that the new pet is actually a wolf...

Wolfie is a more dangerous proposition than the average domestic dog. And that’s even before you take into account the fact that she can talk. But in the end, dogs and wolves are both pack animals, and it is the strong attachments they form to their group, and the uncomplicated nature of their affections, that makes them such precious companions, real or imagined, to children.

Some Different Kinds of Books About Dogs 

1) Dog as Friend

For a lonely, often an only, child a dog becomes an essential companion. Perhaps the most famous example (note my pun here!) is George of the Famous Five. A spiky, difficult girl who wants to be a boy, and feels misunderstood by her parents, George is deeply attached to her dog, Timmy. Indeed it is her determination to constantly defend Timmy which sparks off many of her adventures.

My Sam in Sam and the Griswalds is a timid and lacking in confidence – quite unlike George. But acquiring a dog, Biter, is a crucial ingredient in pepping up Sam’s life. And the support of a dog can be important even in adolescence: as in the wonderfully funny but poignant Feeling Sorry for Celia, where Elizabeth has a better relationship with her collie than her own parents.

2) Dog as Ally

Dogs can be equally important to children who, while they have siblings (maybe lots of siblings) are seeking refuge from the rivalry that often brings. Helen Cresswell’s Ordinary Jack has a closer, less demanding relationship with his mongrel dog, Zero, than with his overly talented siblings. OK, so Zero is far from bright, inclined to wee on the floor when nervous and scared of almost everything. But he makes Jack, the only ordinary member of the Bagthorpe tribe, feel tonnes better about himself.

For Peter Hatcher, narrator of Judy Blume’s classic Fudge books, having a dog is offered as compensation for having to put up with endlessly demanding, troublesome younger brother, Fudge.
3) The Dog Weepy 

My primary school reading book was not usually of much interest to me – but then I read Bedgellert. This was the tale of the hound, Gellert, who saved Prince Llewellyn’s baby son from a wolf attack. But his master, returning home, thought that Gellert had killed the baby – and slew the dog, only to realise his mistake when he found the child unharmed.

This story absolutely devastated me. My heartbreak was only matched a few years later with the death of the boy Stephen’s hound, Amile, in Barbara Leonie Picard’s medieval novel, One is One. It’s a wonderful story and still in print – recommended to all with an interest in dogs, monasteries or painting.

Somehow, terrible to say, it’s always worse when an animal dies. Even today, as I watch the (definitely not for children) series Game of Thrones, it’s not the growing pile of human corpses that upsets me: it’s what happens to the dog (ok, it's a dire-wolf - same thing).

4) The Naughty Dog 

Being animals, dogs cannot be blamed for being naughty – and so children can revel in all the things that a bad dog can get up to (and which they might fancy themselves). Dogs run away, dig up flower beds, chase cats, jump fences, trip up the postman, steal food, and generally cause all kinds of enjoyable domestic chaos. I especially like Rose Impey’s Houdini Dog books, where the two sisters remind me of myself and my sister. We badly wanted a dog, and (as in Impey’s book) we decided that a protracted nagging campaign was the best way to get one. When we finally got one - a beautiful, stupid, but very good-natured Samoyed –  like Houdini dog he was given to occasional escapes, and led us a merry dance finding him again.

My favourite naughty dog of all is probably “the dog” (unnamed) in Adrian Mole. He is sick, he eats model ships, he throws up, he jumps on policemen, he runs away to Grandma’s, he licks his stitches, he is scared of alsations, he gets concrete stuck in his paws – he is thoroughly delightful. Who wouldn't fall for a dog like that?

Long may canines rule in children's fiction: may their barks never grow faint!

Check out Emma Barnes's web-site
Wolfie is published in August 2012 and Emma will be talking about it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.


Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Emma! Wolfie sounds superb, and what a great cover!

JO said...

What an interesting post. I think we all have stories about 'dogs we have known' - both real dogs and those in fiction, and it's fascinating to see our affection for them considered like this. Thank you.

Joe said...

Great post, and it's true that dogs are prevalent in a lot of fiction for younger people. This goes right up to YA, even: just read 'Lucas' by Kevin Brooks, and the MC Caitlin's dog plays quite an important role.

I still love dogs now: probably because they love you no matter what, which is a pretty admirable trait whatever your species!

Nick Green said...

There's a pithy remark by a character in a YA novel by Gordon Kormon:

"The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down."

— Wallace Wallace in "No More Dead Dogs"

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting, Emma. I thought the story of Bedgelert was immensely sad, too. And there was Shadow the Sheepdog (Blyton - wish I still had that: it was one of the first books I actually bought), and The Incredible Journey (exactly, Nick!), and White Fang...

Penny Dolan said...

Enjoyable post, Emma. Sounds as though it's been written with some parent dog-walking experiences behind it! I'm looking forward to getting hold of Wolfie.

Your post andthe picture of Wolfie also reminded me that maybe it's time I got my set of dog stories - The Rickety Hall trilogy - back from the powers and out on to kindle. No, Nick, it may be true in general but in those books the dog definitely did not "get it"! (Ah, maybe that's where I went wrong?)

Good luck with Wolfie! (Think it might be safe to buy it for a Young Small as they already have three cats.)

Emma Barnes said...

Nick - ha! Very true. Even the classics aren't immune to it - as I recall, Heathcliff was forever killing off the dogs in Wuthering Heights. Obviously the way to go (if you can bear it).

And Shadow the Sheepdog! Sue, that was my sister's favourite, and I still have a battered copy somewhere about the house. The bit I remember best is where Shadow saves the lambs from eagles.

Pippa Goodhart said...

But if you want a weepie dog moment, you can't beat the one where faithful elderly Jack, the Ingalls' dog in Little House On The Prairie, is assumed to have drowned, but then turns-up, having followed the covered wagon for miles over the prairie.
Oh, and 'dog as reflection of self' could be another category, thinking of my Flow sheepdog with problems who is a comfort to dyslexic Oliver.
I want to read your book, Emma!

Jackie Marchant said...

Dogs are great! In real life and in fiction. I've got a mad dog in my Dougal Trump Book, based very much on real-life experience. Including the incident with a pair of tights and a zebra crossing . . .

Your book looks great, Emma!

madwippitt said...

Looking forward to reading Wolfie -you can't keep a good dog (book) down!
I did rather like Michael Morpurgo's Born to Run ... and Jayne Woodhouse's The Stephenson's Rocket is brilliant: and no-one writes a better wippitt than Terry Darlington in his Narrowdog -ilogy. As for naughty dogs you won't beat Montmorency in Three Men in a Boat - a co-star who steals every scene he is in. Garth Nix's Disreputable Dog is also wonderful, and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo is a real heart-string tugger - but with a happy ending which is pefect for those like me who sob into their Kleenexes every time a dog is bumped off. The dog murders in GRRM's books are far worse than on the screen, and I'm only just getting over the demise of Cuddy in Sue Price's Sterkarm Handshake ...

Leslie Wilson said...

Must read Wolfie. All my teen novels have dogs in, and they feel very real to their author. I too adore Montmorency, it is very interesting to watch my own dog with my grandchildren - she seems to know instinctively where they are at, and what can be expected of them.

Leslie Wilson said...

Must read Wolfie. All my teen novels have dogs in, and they feel very real to their author. I too adore Montmorency, it is very interesting to watch my own dog with my grandchildren - she seems to know instinctively where they are at, and what can be expected of them.

Joan Lennon said...

Can never re-read Jack London - there's a man whose books you don't want to be a character in, if you're a dog!
Thanks for posting!

Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely post, Emma. I must read Wolfie. I'm writing a story with a dog in it at the moment, and I'm enjoying developing the dog's character. He's becoming more and more necessary to the story - as animals always do!

Emma Barnes said...

Agree with you on Jack London, Joan. Powerful but traumatic.

And I forgot about Montmorency - wonderful! Was remembering too Roger, and all the other dogs, in Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Steve said...

Great post. Perhaps we could add 'dog as crimesolver's sidekick', as in Tintin and Josh Lacey's fabulous GRK books.