Tuesday, March 27, 2007


HOW TO STEAL A DOG by Barbara O'Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Georgina is frustrated about living in a car. Her clothes are wrinkled, her hair is matted, and she has to eat tuna sandwiches from out of an ice cooler. She can't play with friends after school since she has to keep an eye on her little brother, and stretching out on a real bed seems like a distant dream. Even with her mother working two jobs since her daddy left, there just doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But when Georgina spies a "lost dog" sign that offers a reward, she carefully calculates a scheme to snag a canine and hide it until a reward is offered. This misadventure requires a lot of planning, and Georgina writes down her steps meticulously, but forgets big-picture items that the dog will need like water and exercise. Her nagging conscience gets eager back-up from her little brother Toby, a philosophical homeless man named Mookie, and even the raised eyebrow of the trusting pup seems to ask, "are you kidding?" Georgina's bad choices come to a head as she gets to know the dog's heartbroken owner, realizing that her first impressions were off-base and that money doesn't come easily to anyone. Can she make things right before it's too late?

Several titles came to mind when reading this book. The characters from HOW TO STEAL A DOG seemed to be from from the same quirky school as Kate DiCamillo's BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE and the moral dilemma is a cousin to the one introduced in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's brilliant modern dog novel SHILOH. Teachers will find that these three titles make for a mighty literature circle trio. However, the astringent quality of the situation reminded me most of all of Lee Bennett Hopkins' sadly out-of-print character study MAMA, in which a son is asked to be a party to his desperate mother's shoplifting excursions. Both Hopkins and O'Connors raise the question of whether circumstances warrant (or even excuse) actions, and bravely explore what happens when a parent's best efforts fall short. O'Connor's craft is still emerging, and the questions we sense her examining as an author are the same questions that will make for dynamic discussion. What should go next on Georgina's master list? What could the consequences of her actions be, how far can she take it before everything falls apart? Why is she so angry at her mother when the father is the one who left? How are Georgina's choices unsafe? With a special talent for capturing the urgency of situations from the perspective of young people (like the intense spelling bee with a spotlight on an underachieving student in her wonderful novel FAME AND GLORY IN FREEDOM, GEORGIA) and the poignancy of being lower-income in one of the richest countries in the world, O'Connor's books are consistently compelling. Realistic fiction that elicits nail-biting is a tough trick, so reluctant readers will be grateful for her gift. And with 39% of children in America (over 28 million) living in low income families and surviving day-to-day, there is certainly an ever wider audience out there that will appreciate Georgina's family's all-too-familiar struggle. (9 and up)

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