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

Bobbie Pyron
26 Comments
  1. Great list! I really need to read Winn-Dixie. And Love That Dog is one of my favorites, though I’m not sure if I would include it on this list. I’ve known some sensitive kids who stopped reading/were very upset when the tragic part is revealed. If you catch my drift.

  2. That’s so funny . . . I did a book talk for my sixth grade classes this year with the theme of dog books. I included most of the ones above with the addition of Sheep by Val Hobbs. The kids loved them.

  3. I also like “No More Dead Dogs” by Gordon Korman – it’s a fun read 🙂

  4. at the beginning of the school year, my 10 year old read A DOG CALLED KITTY – another one where the dog dies at the end….i wonder why it always has to be that way? so i love these! my 12 year old read A DOG’s LIFE and totally LOVED it. she said, with wide eyes, “that was a GOOD book!” thanks for the suggestions!

  5. I have to give another shout out to Sheep by Valerie Hobbs. One of my favorites!

  6. One of our favorite MG dog books is “Dog Friday” by British author Hilary McKay. Not only is there a great dog/kid story, but McKay writes about the way relationships between kids shift and change. Hope you have a chance to check it out.

  7. So very convenient! My daughter was just asking me about dog-related fiction. She’s a dog-lover, I’m not so much, so this list comes in handy!
    Thanks!

  8. My first favorite books as a young child were both dog books! I know I cried when reading Old Yeller. Yeah for dog books where the dog doesn’t die.

  9. But I have to say – the stories where the dog dies stayed with me a lot longer than the other one. but you’re right – maybe not appropriate for young readers.

  10. Great list! I can’t wait to share Trouble With Tuck with my dog-loving 10 year old.

  11. Another good one: The Good Dog, by Avi.

    But Where the Red Fern Grows is epic.

  12. Excellent list here! I recently read Because of Winn-Dixie and it was delightful. Ribsy and Shiloh are also wonderful.

    I do love Where the Red Fern Grows, though! It’s such a beautiful story.

  13. Nice to see this list of books where the dog doesn’t die. Old Yeller was such a downer for me as a dog loving kid. No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman had a lot to say about this very issue!

  14. I agree with your students- Because of Winn-Dixie is practically perfect in every way. When I teach writing classes on first chapters this is a novel I use as an example of doing pretty much everything “right”.

    One of my other favorite dog novels is an oldy but goody– One Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith. It’s nothing like the Disney movie and there are LOTS and LOTS of great dog characters! It’s a great read aloud.

  15. Don’t forget Sheep by Val Hobbs! The book is written in first person from the dog’s perspective and it has won several awards. And the dog survives 🙂