Diversity And Dogs In Children’s Literature

Many books start something like this:

Ben had a dog called Scrumpy_600x714
Ben and Scrumpy did everything together_600x693

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.

Top voted comments on NBC News' Facebook page
Top voted comments on NBC News’ Facebook page

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.


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.


When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it’s love at first sight—and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh, belongs to Judd Travers who drinks too much and has a gun—and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty’s secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd’s anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his?

Lassie Come Home
Henry and Mudge

The first book in the acclaimed Ready-to-Read series from Newbery Medalist Cynthia Rylant featuring Henry and his lovable 180-pound dog, Mudge.

Henry, feeling lonely on a street without any other children, finds companionship and love in a big dog named Mudge.

My Dog Skip

Now a major motion picture form Warner Brothers, starring Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson, Frankie Muniz, and “Eddie” from the TV show Frasier (as Skip), and produced by Mark Johnson (Rain Man).

In 1943 in a sleepy town on the banks of the Yazoo River, a boy fell in love with a puppy with a lively gait and an intelligent way of listening.  The two grew up together having the most wonderful adventures.  A classic story of a boy, a dog, and small-town America, My Dog Skip belongs on the same shelf as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Russell Baker’s Growing Up.  It will enchant readers of all ages for years to come.

Thunder From The Sea

It’s 1929 and thirteen-year-old Tom Campbell has always wanted a real family with a real house and a dog of his very own. Since he was three years old, the only home he has ever known has been the Mission orphanage.

When he is sent to live and work with fisherman Enoch and his wife, Tom finally sees his dream within reach. And when he rescues a Newfoundland dog in the middle of a terrifying squall, Tom feels as if both he and the dog, which he names Thunder, have found a place to call home at last.

But when Enoch’s wife becomes pregnant and it looks like Thunder’s owner might be found, Tom’s wonderful new world is turned upside down. Will the Murrays still want Tom? And will Tom be forced to give up his beloved Thunder?

Shadow The Sheepdog by Enid Blyton
Shadow The Sheepdog by Enid Blyton

When the Wild Calls McKinley, a malamute, is a good dog — he’s reliable and trustworthy. Whether it’s watching over the other dogs of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, or taking care of his human pup, Jack, McKinley never even thinks of letting anyone down — until he meets Lupin. Lupin is a she-wolf and she’s urging the dogs of Steamboat Springs to leave their domesticated lives and join her wild pack. And though she scares McKinley, he also finds himself drawn to her and the life of freedom that she offers.

For the first time, McKinley’s loyalties are torn. Should he stay with his humans and continue to lead the dogs of Steamboat Springs? Or should he join the wolf and live freely, like his ancestors did? When the wild calls, what will McKinley’s answer be?

Sarge Gets A Timeout

A boy and his dog’s friendship are tested when lies and betrayal come between them. Is revenge a viable teaching tool or can the two come to an understanding and regain their friendship?

It’s a battle of wits against boy and beast in which the two find out if a dog truly is man’s best friend.

In the winter, we love to visit Uncle Peter and his dog Millie at the beach. But the day we took our dog Danny with us, everything went wrong! Until Toby had a good idea …From the one-and-only Pamela Allen comes this delightful dog tale – full of fun and energy.

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.


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:

Just Me And My Dog

Little Critter brings home an adorable puppy. He learns to feed, walk, train and love his new friend. Little Critter discovers puppies are a lot of work, but it’s all worth it!


When a little boy runs in a panic from a haircut, a bird sees to it that his luxuriously follicated head is put to good use and drops a single seed right on top. Time passes, and wait…could it be? Something grows. A leaf! Instead of trying to rid himself of his new living hairstyle, the boy learns how to make the leaf grow, and, in turn, winds up growing a lot himself.


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 Who Wanted A Dog
The Dog That Nino Didn't Have

Nino doesn’t have a dog, but he likes to imagine that he does. His imaginary dog chases squirrels and plays in the lake with him. His imaginary dog licks the tears off Nino’s face and helps Nino feel less lonely while his dad is traveling. But when Nino gets a real dog, it’s not quite what he expected. As he spends more time with his dog, though, Nino learns how to be content with what he has, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to dream.

This award-winning book beautifully depicts the art of finding a balance between imagination and reality.


The boy-dog relationship is so familiar that ‘The Puppy Who Wanted A Dog’ is an instantly recognisable inversion of the trope.

The Puppy Who Wanted A Boy

Petey the puppy has one wish for Christmas: to have a boy of his very own. But boys are in short supply this year, and he can’t seem to find one who is just right!

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.


Outside a peaceful town in central Maine, a monster is waiting. Cujo is a two-hundred-pound Saint Bernard, the best friend Brett Camber has ever had. One day Cujo chases a rabbit into a bolt-hole—a cave inhabited by sick bats. What happens to Cujo, how he becomes a horrifying vortex inexorably drawing in all the people around him makes for one of the most heart-stopping novels Stephen King has written.


This duo is not limited to the West, either.

soviet children's book cover boys marching dog


What if you want to see a Black kid’s relationship with his dog? Well, there’s… Sounder. I’m on the lookout for more.


Set in the Deep South, this Newbery Medal-winning novel tells the story of the great coon dog, Sounder, and the poor sharecroppers who own him.

During the difficult years of the nineteenth century South, an African-American boy and his poor family rarely have enough to eat. Each night, the boy’s father takes their dog, Sounder, out to look for food and the man grows more desperate by the day.

When food suddenly appears on the table one morning, it seems like a blessing. But the sheriff and his deputies are not far behind. The ever-loyal Sounder remains determined to help the family he loves as hard times bear down on them.

This classic novel shows the courage, love, and faith that bind an African-American family together despite the racism and inhumanity they face. Readers who enjoy timeless dog stories such as Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows will find much to love in Sounder.

Fernand Lungren (1857–1932) In the Park, frontispiece for the August 1888 issue of St. Nicholas magazine
Fernand Lungren (1857–1932) In the Park, frontispiece for the August 1888 issue of St. Nicholas magazine
Lemon girl young adult novella