“I don’t want to
Don’t write poetry.
With this bold opening declaration about who can (and can’t) write poetry, we’re introduced to the engaging, opinionated voice of young Jack, a reluctant writer and the focus of award-winning author Sharon Creech’s funny and profound short novel. Jack tells his story in his own free-verse poetry (which Creech cleverly models after the work of minimalist poet William Carlos Williams). This proves to be a great format choice, since kids will find Jack’s poems both easy to read and very accessible.
One of the real strengths of Love That Dog is that it gives us a great peek into how a kid’s thoughts and feelings can grow and change with the help of a little inspiration over the course of a school year. Kids will likely relate to Jack’s initial bout with writer’s block (“I tried./Can’t do it./Brain’s empty”) and his inability to understand the meaning of the poems his supportive teacher, Miss Stretchberry, introduces in class. Anyone who has ever questioned his own teacher’s choice of material will definitely enjoy how Jack hilariously wonders about the intent of every line: “What was up with/the snowy woods poem/you read today?/ Why doesn’t the person just/ keep going if he’s got/so many miles to go/before he sleeps?” (What reader of Robert Frost’s classic poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” hasn’t asked themselves that?!) However, with the help of the intrepid Miss Stretchberry and the timeless words of some well-known poets (including William Blake, Robert Frost, and children’s author Walter Dean Myers), we see Jack begin to blossom with the realization that maybe – just maybe – the words of a true poet might exist inside himself, after all.
As the title of this book suggests, what’s really at the heart of this story is a dog. A very special, yellow dog named Sky. In the beginning, we just get brief glimpses of the close relationship that Jack had with his beloved pet as he reluctantly reveals their story through his early poems. However, as Jack’s writing develops -- and his confidence grows -- we finally learn what happened to Sky. Kids who have lost a pet will be deeply moved by Jack’s ultimate revelation (and fair warning: a few tears just might be shed too, so for younger, more sensitive readers of Love That Dog, some extra comfort and discussion might be needed.) Ultimately, the book ends on an upbeat, inspirational note when Walter Dean Myers, Jack’s beloved poetry hero (and real-life author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) makes a special appearance in Miss Stretchberry’s classroom. Jack’s descriptive and moving report of Myers’ interactive classroom visit made me feel like I was right there with him, sharing in the fun of hearing poetry read aloud by that “low and deep and friendly and warm” voice (and maybe eating a few of those delicious home-made brownies, too). It’s clear that Myers inspires something deeply special and expressive in Jack, and we’re left feeling assured that Jack will continue to reach new creative heights as he continues to find his poetic voice.
Creech is wrestling with big themes and feelings throughout Love That Dog in addition to slyly introducing young readers to the magic of poetry: what it takes for kids to discover their own self-expression; the early impact that supportive teachers and role models can have on students; the tragic, unexpected loss of a beloved pet. In the hands of a lesser writer, Jack’s words could easily become just a bunch of disjointed thoughts and emotions jotted on the page, lacking real cohesion and impact. However, with Creech (a veteran schoolteacher herself) at the helm, Love That Dog pulls things off flawlessly. We’re given a funny, likeable hero that kids will find both relatable and real, and a deeply moving story about the love that can exist between a boy and his dog. In addition, Creech gives us the extra bonus of showing us that powerful things can happen when we have the courage to share our stories -- even the sad ones --with others. This is a perfect book for parents and teachers to either read aloud with their kids or to give to one of their own blossoming, would-be poets.
(Note: in a nice touch, all poems mentioned in the text are included in a special section at the back of the book for readers who want to dig deeper into Jack’s poetry lessons, or for parents who might like to read them together with their kids.)
Reviewed by JW
Find out more about Jack’s favorite poet, Walter Dean Myers, and his role as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature here: http://www.read.gov/cfb/ambassador/
THEMES: POETRY; DOGS; SCHOOLS & SCHOOL STORIES; PETS; TEACHERS
Perfection Learning, 2003
Suggested Ages: 8 and Up