I am trying to catch up on all the books I’ve been reading over the past few months now that I have (a little) time over the summer, away from the Library where I work. One that I wanted particularly to review was One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson.
I first encountered this book a few years ago when Holly got it to read, after enjoying Ibbotson’s other novels: The Star of Kazan, The Dragonfly Pool and Journey to the River Sea. We embarked on reading this book but unfortunately it didn’t grab her in the same way as the previous three, which surprised me. Since, at the time, my husband and I were alternating reading to her at night, I only got half the story and we only reached two-thirds of the way through before she abandoned it. I put it down to her increasing disinterest in fiction at that point in time but, having recently read it myself, I wonder if there was more at work.
Before anything else, I must say that I loved The Star of Kazan and The Dragonfly Pool. Perhaps this is because I particularly enjoy books about orphans and World War II (I don’t know why!). Journey to the River Sea was never a particular favourite of mine – perhaps because we ‘read’ it by listening to an audiobook. Sometimes I find that I am not keen on those books because I can’t get on with the narrator’s voice. Anyway…
Recently I have been doing work for Scholastic, writing Teachers’ Guides for books aimed at children aged 5-12. One such book was One Dog and His Boy so I looked forward to planning lessons aimed at exploring this novel.
Before I go any further, here’s a brief plot summary:
Some children might think that only-child Hal was the luckiest boy alive. He had no irritating brothers or sisters, lived in a palacial house, and had every toy imaginable given to him. But the one thing the boy who had everything always wanted, and never was allowed, was his own dog. That is until his father, guilt ridden for forgetting his birthday, rents mongrel Fleck for the weekend. The pair bond and Hal is the happiest he’s ever been… until Fleck is returned on Monday. Furious with his parents for their deceit, Hal decides to run away to his grandparents’ house with Fleck, but is followed by a pack of other dogs seeking their freedom from the Easy Pets tyranny. He is helped on his way by spirited Kayley, who is determined to give a happy ending to all the dogs in her care.
It sounded like a great plot and I was keen to finish the story. The thing is… I also started to become a little tired of the book as I read through it. There were certainly good aspects about it – the idea of an agency that hires dogs out for the weekend or even for a day was bizarre but a believable and interesting idea. (A bit like the business idea ‘Borrow My Doggy’ I suppose, though more cruel and cynical.) But there were elements that I became tired of.
Most of the adults in the book were portrayed at the best as incompetent, or at the worst downright evil. While adults have always had a bit of a rough deal in children’s literature (a great way to get a child reader on side) and writers such as Roald Dahl have caricatured them to wonderful comic effect, it started to feel overdone in this book. I arrived at a point where, every time an adult was introduced, I would wonder what their flaw would be. Hal’s grandparents were understanding and lovely, and some of the adults Hal encountered on his journey were also likeable. But mainly adults were portrayed as greedy, materialistic and often very nasty. My objections don’t stem from the fact that I am an adult – no one loves a character like Granny from George’s Marvellous Medicine or The Twits as much as me. It just started to become a cliche in itself to have virtually all the adults as money-grabbing idiots. The view that came through the book was that anyone who was religious or octagenarian was OK but any adult under, say, 50 who wasn’t poverty-stricken was likely to be hideous. And they weren’t portrayed in a comical way either – you could imagine these people living in your street.
Another downside was the portrayal of main character Hal. He came across as a boy with a heart but I didn’t discover much more beyond that. Yes, he was unlucky to have parents who tried to buy his love because they couldn’t understand the true way to show affection but he wasn’t perfect himself. He didn’t elicit the sort of emotional response in the reader as one might hope.
The story arc was there but it wasn’t strong. The reader does wonder if Hal will succeed in his quest to get to his grandparents but there wasn’t enough urgency. Obstacles were put in his way but the tension was never maintained enough to drive the narrative forward.
I did complete the work and wrote the Teachers’ Guide on this book but it wasn’t the easiest to create lessons on. Beyond that, it was a read that trickled along but never really got me rushing to the next chapter. A shame because Ibbotson’s other novels are fantastic adventures – perhaps start with those first if you are new to the author.
To read Holly’s and my review of the Star of Kazan, click here.