“In the city lived a dog…who belonged to no one.”
The story Mutt Dog! begins with this most basic statement of character, setting, and conflict in one. Clearly the story is about a stray dog in the city, and the first few pages tell us how he gets by until one rainy day when he finds a shelter where “there were people who were cold and tired…like him.” One of the workers tries to put him out again because dogs aren’t allowed, but she takes pity on him instead and gives him a little food and a box to sleep in for the night before putting him out in the morning. Later that day, she finds him wandering the city streets again and brings him to her home in the country where her family cleans him up and tries to name him before finally settling on Mutt Dog. The end of the story echoes the beginning but ends up with Mutt Dog secure in knowing where he belongs.
The illustrations at the beginning of Mutt Dog! are done in muted watercolors well suited for the dreary street life of a stray, and they are warmer and brighter when he is with his new family. The lines are often sketchy and incomplete, but the image created is one that is detailed without strong definition. (His work reminds me somewhat of Quentin Blake’s, but his lines are much softer and his characters more naturally proportioned–except for their noses!) One of the most significant parts of the illustrations is the homeless people that populate many of the pages. Although they are mentioned only once, when he arrives at the shelter, you can see a variety of different people–young and old, neat and disheveled, families and people all alone–in the scenes around the city that can be identified as in the same desperate situation as the dog. For readers who understand what homelessness is for a person, this is very moving.
GirlChild’s Response: GirlChild, of course, loves dogs, and she responded appropriately to his plight, ending the story with an, “Awww!” when he got his family. She didn’t really seem to notice the people that weren’t directly referenced or involved with the dog, and that is probably developmentally appropriate for her. While I don’t want to give her something to worry about (the possibility of not having a home), I felt that it would be a good idea to point the people in the story out to her and remind her about how we bring food to a shelter like that one every week and that those people also many not have a place to stay at night. I didn’t push it, and she didn’t seem to quite register the enormity of that, but I think that this book is a gentle introduction to the topic that will make it more accessible and meaningful later. Eve Bunting’s book Fly Away Home is a more direct introduction for slightly older children. (UPDATE 8/20/14) Almost Home, by Joan Bauer, is another gentle-but-direct book for upper elementary and older children.