A lot of books start something like this:
image above from Scrumpy, by Elizabeth Dale and Frederic Joos
11-year-old Marley Dias, a black girl from New Jersey recently made headlines for saying that she is sick of reading about white boys and dogs.
I have seen quite a bit of backlash about that comment.
Apparently, some people (almost always white), think that because there exist some number of books about black kids, black kids shouldn’t be complaining about the ratio, and just go read those instead. Which completely misses the point.
The fact is, children’s literature IS chock full of stories about white boys and their dogs. You really have to look quite hard to find anything different, in fact. Marley Dias is right.
CLASSIC BOOKS ABOUT BOYS AND THEIR DOGS
In the West, the story of the middle class white boy and his best-friend, loyal dog are very common. There is a long tradition of books about boys and their dogs.
The duo seems even more so if you consider the most popular of the bunch, which can be measured in terms of screen adaptations. (Only the most popular books get adapted for screen.) Here are the family dog offerings on Australian Netflix at the moment, and I think I snapped all of them:
We do have an ensemble cast in Spy Kids, in which the dog is one of the gang:
Hotel for Dogs is about a 16-year-old girl, though the story requires a younger brother.
MALE ANIMALS AND THEIR DOGS
This isn’t a white boy with his dog, as such… but it looks damn creepy to me:
When the boy isn’t a human, he is usually a boy, and the general rule applies to picture books as much as it applies to novels:
BOYS WHO WANT DOGS
A fairly common desire line: Boy wants dog. Boy works hard to get dog. Some of these stories are feminist, actually, in the same way that the Pixar movie Up is feminist, even while killing off the only female character right at the beginning of the story: A boy is allowed to show his nurturing side even in times when caring was a distinctively female attribute.
The boy-dog relationship is so familiar that ‘The Puppy Who Wanted A Dog’ is an instantly recognisable inversion of the trope.
Stephen King took the boy and his loving dog story and turned it into a horror story, which works so well precisely because it takes the original children’s literature trope and changes the genre completely.
NON-ENGLISH SPEAKING BOYS AND THEIR DOGS
This duo is not limited to the West, either.
CHILDREN OF COLOUR AND THEIR DOGS
What if you want to see a black kid’s relationship with his dog? Well, there’s always Sounder.
GIRLS AND THEIR DOGS
What if you have a canine loving girl and she would like to see herself reflected in literature? Well, girls and dogs have in previous eras and in other cultures been seen together quite often.
The 1940s gave us George and Timmy, though Enid Blyton felt she had to turn Georgina into an honorary boy.
The Journey of Natty Gann also stars a Tomboy and looks to be a female equivalent of White Fang. The story is a Disney original but there’s also a novelisation.
Set in 1935, the movie tells the story of a 15-year-old tomboy girl, Natty Gann (Meredith Salenger). Out of work because of Depression-era unemployment, Natty’s widowered father (Ray Wise) parlays his surefootedness into getting a job as a lumberjack. In order to get hired, he travels from Chicago to the state of Washington. He tells Natty that she will have to look after herself for the time being. Having no mother, Natty is left in the care of Connie (Lainie Kazan), the insensitive woman who manages the hotel Natty and her father had been living in.
After overhearing Connie reporting her as an abandoned child, Natty runs away to find her father on her own, embarking on a cross-country journey. Along the way she saves a wolfdog from a dog fighting ring. In return the dog, whom she calls Wolf, follows her as her protector in her attempt to return to her Father.
Dorothy had Toto, but you won’t find Toto on a lot of the covers. Here he is on this one, though:
Notice that girl dogs tend to be little and cute, while boys tend to own larger working dogs:
Scotty dogs are perhaps especially feminine:
These days we do have the benefit of Kate diCamillo. This story ticks another box — it’s not about a well-off kid who lives in a middle class house and a good income. (Winn-Dixie has also been adapted for the screen.)
Here’s another book about other abled kids, and a girl and her dog.
Wolf Children is a Japanese animated feature about a girl and a boy who are half wolf, half human. The girl is the storyteller narrator. It follows both the boy and the girl as they navigate through childhood and make a big decision at adolescence.
In picture books we have the metafictive story This Book Just Ate My Dog, and the main character is called Bella and is wearing a dress.