Like many boys his age, my six-year-old son would rather be up a tree than reading a book; but he also loves everything to do with dogs. With his brows knit in concentration, he has paged through every book the library can offer about dog breeds, dog care, rescue dogs, service dogs, hero dogs, and dogs I’ve never even heard of. So this summer for our family chapter-book readalouds, we took a break from our usual selections and read every book we could find about that timeless bond between boys and dogs.
None of these books are new, and most are considered classics. They follow a common thread: a white boy coming of age during tough times, and his relationship with a beloved dog. Every one of them discusses hunting, fishing, trapping, or shooting (each laudably taking pains to distinguish between the responsible, legal harvesting of wild animals for sustenance, versus poaching or wanton killing); and every one describes at least one bloody fight between a dog and a wild animal. Each depicts families living in relatively poor conditions, but making the most of what they have. The style – particularly the dialogue – of each reflect the dialect common to the time and place, which is not necessarily correct English but does contribute to the story. Most of these books represent humane animal care by modern standards (do be prepared for some technical terms; a female dog is properly called a “bitch” after all). Some I enjoyed reading aloud and others less so; but I certainly loved hearing my little boy beg me to read just one more chapter.
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
Billy works and saves to buy two beautiful blooded coon hounds: Old Dan and Little Ann. He trains them himself and turns them into champions, before nature heartbreakingly proves just how noble his two dogs really are. Their enduring tale of faithfulness and sacrifice is masterfully – almost overwhelmingly – told. If you choose only one book on the list, read this one. The final chapters will leave even grown readers with the ache of grief; but also with a tiny sprout of hope.
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
Travis is left to look after the homestead while his father goes on a cattle drive, and at first has no love for the ugly, troublesome stray that takes up with the family. Eventually he becomes fond of Old Yeller and his funny habits, and ultimately grieves when it falls to him to destroy the dog who saved his life. While his mishaps are entertaining and his ending is sad, Yeller’s haphazard behavior (across a series of random events poorly contrived by the author) makes him an unlikely hero to my mind. Generally considered a classic, the racist overtones and unapologetically rough treatment of animals render this a title better forgotten by future generations.
The Big Red series, by Jim Kjelgaard
This beautifully-written series of three books follows mountain boy Danny and his growing fascination with the finely bred Irish Setters on the estate where he works. A strong, hardworking boy who knows the ways of the woods, Danny appreciates the careful generations of breeding that have created dogs so sensitive, intelligent, athletic, and instinctive as his striking dog Red. Gripping storytelling takes readers into the wilderness with Red, his sons, and the resourceful boy who loves them. Bravery, nobility, kindness, and exhilarating adventure accompany this breathtaking glimpse of a rare way of life. The first two books (Big Red and Irish Red) are superior to the final installment (Outlaw Red), but all three deserve more readership.
Red Dog, by Bill Wallace
Adam struggles to respect his stepfather Sam and embrace his lonely new home in the West, but he finds some companionship with a gangly red puppy that Sam has found in a cave. When Sam is called away Adam tries to keep the family safe from murderous thieves, but it is the pup – and an unusual foster mother – who protect him in the end. The story is predictable and not particularly well written, leaving the unnamed puppy something of an accidental hero. Like Old Yeller, this is a rougher tale that can boast no cleverness to soften the edges.
Lassie Come-Home, by Eric Knight
Beautiful Lassie trots through town to the schoolyard every day at four to meet young Joe and walk him home. When the local mine closes, the lovely collie must be sold to help pay family expenses and Joe is devastated. But even in the farthest reaches of Scotland, Lassie’s love for her family tells her when it’s time to go and fetch the boy. Driven by the finely-bred instinct to serve her master, she undertakes a harrowing journey to find her way home to northern England. I confess to being surprised that this book ever took off with American audiences. It is a charming story, but it unfolds slowly, subtly. It is not sentimental, but carefully examines themes of home, family, hardship, love, and loss (particularly as all the characters who help Lassie on her way are living with the recent memory of the Great War, and are themselves trying to remember what love means). On the whole this is a quiet, thoughtful read along the lines of James Herriot’s Dog Stories (complete with Yorkshire accents).
Whether your boy has a dog or longs for one, may he find a lifelong friend within these pages.