For today’s post we wanted to highlight a small subset of stories that we have made available through Yesterday’s Classics. There are four titles in all, each is an adventure tale, and each either features a dog for its protagonist or centers around dogs in some other way.
The four stories highlighted in this post all feature courageous dogs (and their equally courageous masters), and are intended for middle-school aged readers and up.
I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that this sort of book is so popular with that particular age demographic. To me, these stories serve as a natural bridge for middle-aged readers between the countless children’s books that feature animals (the Among the People series, the Burgess Bedtime Story-Books, the Beatrix Potter books, etc.), and full-length novels.
Each book or short story in this quartet will feel familiar to youthful readers, reminding them of earlier stories they read and loved, but each book also contains more mature themes such as the necessity of courage, the fight for survival under dire circumstances, the fight against evil, etc. With the one exception of Adrift on an Ice-Pan, each dog featured in these stories is endowed with his own unique character and lovable quirks, and all are masterfully written.
Readers who own dogs will easily understand the adoration the dogs’ masters feel for them, and readers without dogs will relish the opportunity to read about the exploits of such wonderful creatures!
Despite not having read it until my early adulthood, The Call of the Wild is an all-time favorite of mine.
Its hero is Buck, who leads the luxurious life of a lap dog for the first years of his life, although I suspect his size was prohibitive to any actual lap sitting, as he is half St. Bernard and half Scottish Shepherd (a.k.a. Collie). Born and raised in sunny California, he is eventually stolen and sold for use as a sled dog. In Alaska, Buck must learn to survive the forces of the arctic, including defending himself against other dogs and even against many men. Throughout these trials, Buck begins to hear the “call of the wild” and something primordial starts to awaken inside of him.
Both on his way to the Klondike region and upon arriving, Buck goes through a series of several owners, until he finds his match in the courageous John Thornton. The two are very much equals, and even become indebted to one another when each in turn saves the other’s life. But whether even John Thornton can prevent Buck from heeding the “call of the wild” is another matter entirely.
I still have never read any of Jack London’s other books, but can highly recommend this one! It’s great for middle schoolers, and lends itself well to discussion, too. I read it with four classes of seventh graders, and was delighted to observe how much the students enjoyed it each year. The female students loved it just as much, if not more than, the males!
A magnificent dog, stolen from a comfortable home for use as a husky in the Klondike, develops, through his varied life on the team and among men, a remarkable sense of responsibility and an unbounded capacity for love and hate. Upon the death of his master, his only friend, he responds to the call of the wild and becomes one of a great wolf pack. A powerful story, vivid in background and dramatic in incident.
When I first read Lad, A Dog I was struck by how similar its opening setting is to that of The Call of the Wild. Although different breeds of dogs and born on opposite sides of the country, Lad leads the life that Buck might have enjoyed, had he not been sold into captivity.
Lad is a beautiful male collie who enjoys a privileged status at The Place, where he lives in the main house alongside his master and beloved mistress. Moreover, Lad has a mate, Lady, whom he adores, but who often behaves carelessly toward him.
Lad, 'an eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood,' is an unforgettable dog. Devoted to his Master and Mistress, he protects them from intruders and thieves, saves a visiting child from a snake, and makes them proud when he wins tops prize at the dog show. In all instances, Lad shows himself to be the epitome of loyalty, honor, and courage. Readers of all ages enjoy the adventures of Lad, through all its ups and downs.
Lad’s most salient characteristics are his loyalty and obedience toward his master and mistress. He understands them perfectly, and is only ever disobedient when he must protect someone who does not know himself to be in danger. But when occasion requires it, he becomes fiercely protective of his home and loved ones.
The book, the longest of all four titles mentioned here, is written in an episodic fashion, and focuses on Lad as a hero of his family. Among the vignettes recounted are stories of Lad defending his home against intruders, saving his mistress’s life, becoming a father, and competing in dog shows – much to his own displeasure. As a house-dog, the challenges that Lad does encounter are not so much those of the wildness of nature, but of evil within men. I would say it’s a great read for children or families who wholeheartedly adore dogs, and enjoy reading about them. The themes and events of this book aren’t nearly as complex as those of the other three, but it will nevertheless be a lighthearted and enjoyable read for many. Perhaps even a good counterweight to the other three stories! And if your family appreciates this first book about Lad, there are two sequels to enjoy: Lad of Sunnybank and Further Adventures of Lad.
Of all these stories, Adrift on an Ice Pan is the one that focuses most on man’s experience, rather than on the experience of his animals. In this true account, Sir Wilfred Grenfell remembers the time when he became stranded on an ice-pan with his team of dogs in St. Anthony, Newfoundland on, of all days, Easter Sunday.
Dr. Grenfell had been sent to Newfoundland as a medical missionary from England, and in this story, finds himself required to travel 60 miles over the ice to treat a young child suffering from a serious bone disease. During his journey he becomes separated from his companions, and the ice sheet beneath him and his komatik, or dog sled, begins to break up.
The majority of the story focuses on his struggle to survive, and on his thought processes throughout the endeavor. Unfortunately, Dr. Grenfell is forced to sacrifice 3 of his beloved team of dogs in order to survive the bitter cold of night, but the rest survive the trial with him. Because of this, parents or teachers will probably find it a good idea to read the story in advance of reading it with their children or students! I didn’t find it any more gruesome than certain elements or scenes of The Call of the Wild, but just wanted to warn more sensitive readers (and dog lovers).
In Adrift on an Ice-Pan, Wilfred Thomason Grenfell recounts a near death experience and the miraculous rescue that saved his life. The incident takes place in Labrador in 1908 as Dr. Grenfell sets out with his team of sled dogs to treat a medical emergency sixty miles south of his home. Traversing a stretch of frozen ice, Grenfell finds that it is not as solid as he had believed; suddenly stranded, the team floats helplessly on their ice-pan, surrounded by frigid water. Through quick-thinking by Grenfell and heroic efforts by his rescuers, Grenfell does make it off the ice-pan alive. Adrift on an Ice-Pan is a true story of faith, sacrifice, and survival.
As one might expect, faith plays a major part in this story. As a missionary, Dr. Grenfell was a man of deep faith and that faith is evident throughout his trials. The conviction he bears throughout his time on the ice-pan is remarkable: he does not seem to feel fear or doubt that good will come, whether that good be his ultimate rescue, or going to meet his Maker. In fact, his refrain throughout the entire journey is “Thy will, not mine, O Lord.”
Again, this book isn’t so much of a “dog” book as the other three, but it is an inspiring tale, nevertheless!
Like Adrift on an Ice Pan, Stickeen is a true story, this time of John Muir’s experience with a “small and worthless” black dog named Stickeen. Despite his unimpressive physique, however, Stickeen proves himself to have a remarkable character, and he and John Muir soon establish a strong sense of kinship.
The two first meet on an exploration voyage of southeastern Alaska, and in the main event of this short story, sneak off early in the morning to explore a glacier without the rest of their company. Unfortunately, though, they are caught in a blizzard and must somehow find their way back to camp without falling into any crevasses. Under the circumstances, this proves to be a seemingly impossible task, for Muir and Stickeen alike.
As Muir recounts their difficult journey back, he focuses in particular on Stickeen’s character, and on his reluctance to cross an especially treacherous ice bridge in order to make it back to camp. Muir does not want to leave Stickeen, but Stickeen seems to refuse to follow Muir. Ultimately, the perils they face together cause the two to become the best of friends, and very nearly inseparable for the remainder of the trip.
This is another short story set in a remote and snowy land, but in many ways much lighter than Adrift on an Ice Pan, and accordingly, appropriate to read with slightly younger children.
In this exquisite essay, John Muir relates a death-defying experience he shared with a dog named Stickeen on an Alaskan glacier and reflects on the insights it offered him. Of his companion, Muir writes: 'At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.' An absolute must for dog lovers.
Among these four books, there is something for everyone!
The short story Adrift on an Ice Pan focuses most heavily on a man’s near encounter with death and the faith he demonstrates in his responses. The Call of the Wild, on the other hand, is set in similarly dire circumstances, but written from the perspective of the formidable sled dog, Buck, and is also in novel form. Stickeen, another short story, is again written from the perspective of a man, but focuses heavily on his dog’s character and experiences, too. Lastly, Lad is the most lighthearted and episodic of the four titles and is wonderful for family reading.
Each of these books would be appropriate for a middle-aged reader to tackle independently, but all also make for excellent read-alouds. We especially recommend this type of book because it makes for great transition material between the many children’s books that feature animals and full-length novels!
Do you have a favorite dog book or short story that we didn’t include here? Please let us know in the comments below!
Ever since we’ve started this blog, I’ve had a flood of memories come back to me about our experiences of reading aloud as a family. And although I have always appreciated the value my mom placed on literature, it’s taken me a long time to realize that it was our ritual of reading aloud in particular that both shaped our family dynamic and my own love for books. Accordingly, today’s post is a glimpse into what it was like growing up in a read-aloud family.
For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, we ended each evening by reading aloud as a family. Usually my mom read aloud to us, but sometimes my brother and I also took turns reading. We began by reading simple picture books, then chapter books like the Twins series and the Little Britches books. Along with these books, we also read some more modern titles. Eventually we worked our way up to authors such as Melville, Dickens, and Scott and later on, Wendell Berry.
Reading aloud was an activity that brought us together at the end of each day, and gave us a sense of unity as a family. Because we were all invested in the books we were reading, we all looked forward to this nightly tradition and the time we were able to spend together then.
My older brother and I could not have been more dissimilar while we were growing up, but reading aloud gave us a shared interest and goal. It served as a way for us to do something together without bickering or becoming annoyed at one other. It also gave us things to talk about, and helped us develop more sympathy for each other.
In retrospect, I think reading aloud was especially important for our family dynamic after my dad died. This ritual gave my mom a way to spend quality time with both of us together every single day and to check in on us in an indirect and subtle manner. So many aspects of our family life had been thrown off kilter after his death that the constancy and comfort of that one ritual was really critical for all of us, playing a valuable role in our healing process.
Of course, there were always plenty of good books available to us for independent reading, as well, which we did more or less as we pleased. My mom mostly took a “laissez faire” approach to independent reading since she wanted us to actually enjoy it. She figured that it would be best to let us come to reading in our own time (which we both did). But reading aloud was non-negotiable.
So all throughout our childhoods, she read books of the very highest quality aloud to us, one chapter at a time. Many of the books that we read aloud together I went back to a year or so later and re-read by myself. But reading these books aloud together was an entirely different experience and one that was valuable in itself.
One powerful outcome of reading aloud together was that we processed difficult topics together. I particularly remember reading books like The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and Mildred Taylor’s Logan series (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, etc.). These books address hard subjects, but ones that are important for children to be aware of and to talk about. We often discussed what we read afterward and would refer back to it in later conversations.
Simply sharing the experience of reading these hard chapters also brought us closer together. I don’t think I will ever forget about the revelation about being grateful for fleas in The Hiding Place, or the terror their family felt. I was also very, very glad to have my family there when reading about those experiences.
Part of the joy of reading is being able to share what you read with others, and spending time reading aloud as a family enabled us to do just that. Over the years we shed many tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter together. We also read scores of outstanding books that enriched our hearts and our minds alike. Best of all, though, we were able to share these experiences as a family.
Do you have a favorite memory of your family reading aloud when you were growing up? Is reading aloud something you do with your children now? Please let us know in a comment below — we love hearing from our readers!