Thursday 11 March 2010

Dogs in Books

Polly the puppy is currently ruling my life during every waking minute of hers. Things will change week by week, but at the moment she sleeps all night (what a good dog!) and wakes, whining, just before 7am. This is my cue to jump out of bed and take her into the garden in my pyjamas, where she darts around, nose into everything, small tail wagging furiously. Then it’s all go for the next two hours – chewing, galloping about with squeaky toys, leaping at our knees with flattened ears, beseeching eyes and scrabbling paws, and staring transfixed at the cats – one of which saunters past with a coquettish glance, while the other bushes out her fur and vanishes.

The rest of the day follows a two-hours-off/two-hours-on pattern of mad play followed by utterly flopped-out sleep. I try to do all my other tasks while she’s asleep. And you can bet she’s waking up, fresh for more fun, just before I’m quite ready. Boy, do I sleep well at night.

Anyway, in honour of Polly, I thought I would write today about dogs in books.

Dogs in books are a Good Thing. I always try to have a dog or two in each of mine. In my first book ‘Troll Fell’ there are three, all quite different: Peer’s faithful little brown mongrel Loki, his uncle’s unpleasant mastiff Grendel, and steady old Alf, the sheepdog at Hilde’s farm. And in my fourth book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’) there is the whole pack of Lord Hugo’s hounds, including the elegant white greyhound Argos. Country people have always had lots of dogs, and in past centuries most people were country people, so to have a lot of dogs in the books makes perfect sense.

Historical fiction and dogs make me think immediately of Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I devoured as a child. Sutcliff – who must easily win the title of Britain’s most loved writer of junior historical fiction – loved dogs, and there is a noble dog in many of her books - 'Whitethroat' in 'Warrior Scarlet', 'Argos' in 'Brother Dusty Feet' - but for me the most iconic is ‘Dog’ (in ‘Dawn Wind’, 1961, illustration by Charles Keeping), the young war-hound that the boy Owain finds by moonlight on the ruins of the battlefield:

it was something alive in the cold echoing emptiness of a dead world. It stood with one paw raised, looking at him, and Owain called, hoarsely, with stiff lips and aching throat: ‘Dog! Hai! Dog!’ … [It] came, slowly and uncertainly… once it stopped altogether; then it finished at the run and next instant was trembling against his legs.
He was a young dog; the beautiful creamy hair of his breast-patch was stained and draggled, and his muzzle bloody in the moonlight… ‘Dog, aiee, dog, we are alone then. There’s no one else. We will go together, you and I.’

The brilliance of the writing is to show us, in the lonely and innocent terror of the dog and what he has been made to do, the full dreadfulness of war.

Most children love dogs and enjoy reading about them. Enid Blyton used the combination of ‘four children and a dog’ again and again. ‘The Famous Five’ would not be five without Timmy the dog, who is big enough to offer some protection and even to be of use to the plot – many’s the time Timmy carries that essential scribbled note (‘Help! Locked in the old castle! Our tutor is a spy: call Scotland Yard!’) attached to his collar. ‘The Secret Seven’ had a dog called Scamper, I think, and there’s a black spaniel in the ‘Barney’ books, and so on.

It used not to be unusual for even quite young children to be let out alone with a doggy companion. In the 1960’s my brother and I were allowed to roam about on our own on the moors or streets of our country town, so long as we took the dog with us. Stories about children with dogs were so common that many children must have believed ownership of a dog was some kind of right. But what about children who couldn’t have dogs? In Philippa Pearce’s 1962 classic ‘A Dog So Small’ (illustrated by Anthony Maitland), the child hero Ben longs for a dog, but lives in a London back street with no room for one. His grandfather promises him a dog for his birthday, but the promise can’t be kept:

…[Ben] cut the string around the parcel and then unfolded the wrapping paper.
They had sent him a picture instead of a dog.

And then he realised that they had sent him a dog after all. He almost hated them for it. His dog was worked in woollen cross-stitch, and framed and glazed as a little picture. There was a letter which explained: ‘Dear Ben, Your grandpa and I send you hearty good wishes for your birthday. We know you would like a dog, so here is one…’
…Ben said nothing, because he could not.

To compensate, Ben begins to fantasise about a dog of his own – ‘a dog so small you could see it only with your eyes shut’. If by some chance you haven’t read this book, I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the ending, only that it’s one of the most touching stories ever about longing, and the dangers of wish fulfilment, and of coming to terms with reality.

Not all dogs in children’s fiction are noble characters. Witness the memorably vain and selfish King Charles spaniel Wiggins, the pet of Maria in Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Little White Horse’:

It was the belief of Maria and Miss Heliotrope that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close at their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it good policy... The only parts of Wiggins that were not cream coloured were his long silky ears and the patches over his eyes. These were the loveliest possible shade of chestnut brown. His eyes were brown too, and of a liquid melting tenderness that won all hearts; the owners of the said hearts being quite unaware that Wiggins’s tenderness was all for himself, not for them.

Of course this is funny, and we forgive Wiggins just as Maria does, because he fulfils a comedic function that is another important role for dogs in books and in life. Young children often regard a dog as a clownish, non-threatening little brother or sister – reassuringly clumsier and more foolish than themselves. Yet, like clowns, dogs can get away with ‘naughty’ activities a child secretly enjoys. Loki, in ‘Troll Fell’, can express rebellion against Peer’s bullying Uncle Baldur by simply being himself – an irrepressible, lively little dog.

But now I’m wondering. Have there been many dogs in recent books for children? The only one I can think of, off-hand, is Todd’s dog Manchee in Patrick Ness’s ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ – a wonderful character in a wonderful book, though to be read with a large box of tissues handy, if you are tender-hearted. Are there many others? And if not, why not, and does it reflect the fact that children nowadays don’t get to roam around on their own with their dogs?

Whoops, Polly’s waking up. Got to go!


  1. We've recently re-housed a stray dog and it's the first time our 12 year old daughter has come into close contact with dogs. She now realises the difference between them and almost any other pet - cats, guinea pigs and hamsters don't interact in the same way at all. Someone recently said 'A dog loves you back' and I think that's the magic of them and why they seem so much more 'human' than other pets.
    As for fictional dogs, don't forget the Disreputable Dog in Lirael - though admittedly that's more of a spirit in a dog's body.

  2. Dogs in books can become a child's best friend, especially if they are not allowed to keep pets themselves. I love writing about dogs as I can't keep one myself and it reminds me of all the lovely reasons why some of us choose to live with dogs. Thanks for such a wonderful summary. My children's writing always has a spaniel in it!

  3. Miriama and Maryom,thankyou! I knew people would all come up with something, and I agree, the Disreputable Dog is wonderful. How could I have forgotten her? Any more modern fictional dogs out there?

  4. I've written about a couple of dogs, but they always seem to die tragic deaths. There was a golden labrador in Spellfall called Bilbo who drowned, and of course Alexander the Great's dog Perita who in my version of the story died defending her master. As you can tell, I'm not really a dog person!

    But what about wolves? There's Michelle Paver's "Wolf Brother", maybe others.

  5. That's true,Katherine, the wolf in 'Wolf Brother' does pretty well fulfill the doggy function of faithful, loved and loving friend. A kind of ur-dog, then!

  6. Arthur's hounds in Sword at Sunset. Sue Price and Per's hounds in The Sterkarm books.

    I KNEW Manchee was for it as soon as he was introduced in TKONLG. I hate that so.

    All the darling dogs in Lynley Dodds' Hairy McLary books.

    Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones while you're about it.

    But I'm a cat person really, though I like dogs.

  7. The dog in Rumer Godden's Breakfast with the Nicolaides is more powerful dead than alive. A child uses the imaginary dog to tell her mother that she knows she's been lied to about his death. It's an awesome story but can take your life to places from which it is hard to return.

  8. "Dogsbody", of course! I love that book. Judith, that's one of Rumer Godden's I haven't read - I must find it.

    Incidentally Polly has just met the vacuum cleaner, and has come off best! Jumped all over it!

  9. Others have beaten me to it. Just finished Nix's Lirael and Abhorsen and loved the Disreputable Dog. But my favorite has got to be Sirius in Diana Wynne Jone's Dogsbody. Both the dog and cat characters are beautifully portrayed - without sentiment.

  10. Runner Bean in the Charlie Bone books? Shall have to go away and rack my brains now for more. But I agree with everyone about the Disreputable Dog. A memorable modern creation. Polly is squidgeable. Enjoy the puppymadness while it lasts.

  11. I think that there is a lack of dogs featuring in a lot of young adult modern fiction - but that does seem to be a reflection of real life, fewer and fewer families with children now also have a dog.

    Favourite dogs in fiction for me include, in children's fiction Rufus and Bruno the St Bernards in the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. (Also her book Kennelmaid Nan is a wonderful reflection of life in a show/breeding kennel in the early/mid 20th Century). My other favourite has to be Meg, from A Wind is Blowing by Monical Edwards. She is a failed sheepdog who is taken on by Meryon to train as a guide dog when he looses his sight.

    I also have a soft spot for what the author Sharon Penman calls Norwegian Dyrehunds (actually they are Elkhounds) in Whilst Christ & His Saints Slept.

    (sorry rambling too long - dogs are a pet subject of mine as I have three asleep at my feet as I work)

  12. Lawks, I wish my puppy would go to sleep on my feet... some day, I guess! I'm interested in your comments because, guess what, I haven't read any of these books! I never quite got into the Chalet School (my sister did) and though I remember reading Monica Edwards' pony books, I never ead one about a shepdog. Will look up Sharon Penman. Good title!

  13. After having been permanently traumatized by "Old Yeller" (and I'm not exaggerating) I avoid dogs in books like the plague unless its safety is guaranteed because I always suspect the author will kill it thus making me suffer even more. One of my New Year's resolutions this year was, in fact, "no more dead dog books" and I'm sticking by it far better than any of the others.

    I wish I knew why there weren't more dogs in books for kids - I just checked google and the Humane Society is reporting for 2009-10 77.5 million dog owners in the U.S. (39% of all households). Those are pretty decent numbers and I think could be better reflected in books.

    I have had at least one dog nearly my entire life. The current dog is an 89 pound shelter dog that is a mix of rottweiler/lab/shepherd/husky....something big AND furry. His name is Hondo and we all adore him and yes, he is asleep at my feet this very second.

  14. Love this post but could not for the life of me think of any book with a dog in it.
    Have just now thought of The story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, a book which was flawed but had some wonderful dog characters, and as wolves are canine ancestors, I put in another enthusiastic vote for Michelle Paver's wolf. I love Wolf even more than I love her MC Torak.

  15. my word verification was 'bonest' which sounds like a new dog word.

  16. I've just remembered Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's 'Shiloh', which my daughter read aged about 8, when we lived in the US. I was waiting all the way through that book for something awful to happen to the dog, but as far as I recall, there's a happy ending. It was a 'boy meets dog' story. And I suppose there's Sharon Creech's 'Love That Dog' too. But they all tug at the heartstrings, even when the dog survives. I confess I did once consider killing off one of my fictional dogs, but I went and asked my daughters and they were horrified, and I didn't do it. (And I'm glad.)

  17. Speaking of wanting and not being allowed a dog, The Kidnappers is a b&w film about a couple of kids who find a baby and look after that instead. I know it's a film but the subject is longing, as discussed above, and the end is very touching.

    Some, but not all, cats love you back.

  18. Fascinating article - thank you. Rosemary Sutcliff was a close relative of mine.

    I was intrigued by your highlighting of how dogs often featured in her books. I know she adored dogs, always had a labrador when her father was alive and living with her - he could look after it (she was very disabled). When he had died, she always had two chihuahas (spelling?). Penelope Lively once wrote about how they used to yap around visitors (see blog below). My children were terrified of these little yapping beasts and I had to escort them (and their mother) down the long corridors of her bungalow home.

    She also later in her life wrote a little story about dogs (Little Hound Found)

    May I extract the part of your article about Rosemary for the blog I do about her, with the proper acknowledgements and inks of course?

    Anthony Lawton

  19. What a wonderful blog post - although it brought a tear to my eye. For many years we shared our home with the most beautiful Belgian Shepherd cross that you could have wished to meet, Elsa. My youngest learnt to walk by pulling herself up on her fur and all Elsa would do would be to give me a long suffering look that said 'get me out of this...please!' - she is very much missed.
    Others have mentioned my favourite dogs in books (Timmy being top of the list of course) but there are also all of the wonderful character full dogs I met in the James Herriot books, which reminds me I must re read them.................;0)

  20. There's a dog in my next book, Almost True. I really enjoyed writing about her, brought back memories of Ben who we had when I was a teenager.

    101 Dalmations has to be the ultimate doggy book for children. The fictional dog I love best is in an adult book - Edward in Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. Perfectly alive on the page.

  21. Antony, my eyes almost popped out when I saw the tagline for your comment! How exciting to meet a relative of Rosemary Sutcliff's. You're welcome to quote from my blog. As I love her books so much, I'm certain to be alluding to her again. Interesting to hear about the chihuahuas - all the dogs in her books that I can remember were the large hound variety, but they would be too difficult to exercise. Perhaps she wrote about them as a way of owning them anyway, as Miriam, who wrote the first comment above, suggests.

    Beverley, thanks for your comment too - Belgian Shepherds are such beautiful dogs. I appreciate just how you must miss her - our puppy is the second Dalmatian we have owned: our beloved old Rosie had to be put to sleep just before Christmas...

  22. 101 Dalmatians! Duh... that's a case of me not spotting (sorry) what's right under my nose. Of course! I'll look forward to the dog in your next book.

    Maybe I'll start up a group - 'Authors for Dogs in Books....'

  23. I could hear the late Barbara Wodehouse in your 'what a good dog!'

    I cannot read any book with a dog in it unless I am very, very sure nothing bad happens. If it is about a dog in trouble, forget it! The new mystery I've bought, Dog Gone It looks promising as a fun book. I really liked Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie. And the Bagthorpe books by Helen Cresswell feature dear Zero. I can't remember if Steinbeck's dog dies in Travels with Charley.

  24. Nan, avoid I Am David at all costs.

  25. Also avoid The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time...

  26. I think you're right about the general lack of dogs in books for older children recently. However there are some in books for younger children, notably by Rose Impey and Jeremy Strong. And Dick King-Smith may prefer pigs, but he does have some good doggie characters.

    I grew up with Rosemary Sutcliff (though my first stuffed toy dog was called Timmy). I think my favourite of all her dogs was the one in Warrior Scarlet (just look at the scene where Drem protects him when he's been chosen for a dog fight).
    She also did at least one good cat - the one in Mark of the Horse Lord that rode around on the shoulders of the hero's best friend. After reading that, I desperately wanted a cat that would do that, and I eventually got one (though not a Scottish wild cat).
    The one that made me weep buckets, though, was a short story about one of her chihuahuas, in which the dog dies and has to perform an act of incredible bravery to be re-incarnated to be with her again. (This was embarrassing, because I was at work at the time!) Sadly, I couldn't afford the book at the time, and I haven't seen a copy since.

  27. Eigon, how right you are about Conory's wildcat in 'Mark of the Horselord' - I think that's my favourite of all her books. I don't know the one about the chihuahua - must see if I can find it on the web!

  28. Maybe Little Hound Found published in 1989 by Haimish Hamilton? (ISBN 0241125057)

  29. ... and also see, thanks for the permission Katherine

  30. I always have to have dogs in my books, and not just dogs. There's Rollo in The Gypsy Crown (and a bear, a horse, and a monkey.) He was lovely to write, based on a dog I had when I was a younger. And Jed in the Witches of Eileanan books ... I always thought my preoccupation with animals in books was because my father was a vet

  31. Antony, thanks - and Kate, I have the 'Gypsy Crown on my 'to read' pile!