A love letter to the importance of poetry and how creative expression can help one cope with overwhelming emotions, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is just perfect. And brilliant. And, for certain adult readers, probably the impetus for a good cry. I was intrigued by this book, which is about a boy who, with the help of a remarkable teacher, deals with the loss of his dog through poetry and finds a whole new world of words opens up to him, when it was released in 2001. The only other verse novel for kids I was familiar with at the time was Karen Hesse's Newbery winning Out of the Dust which I had read and loved. In 2004 we got our first dog and after that I knew there was almost no way I would ever read Love That Dog. I don't deal well with loss. In fact, I even get pretty upset if I think I have lost a book, so reading a book about losing a beloved dog was definitely very low on my list no matter what I felt about Sharon Creech and verse novels. But, things change and National Poetry Month happens. And I'm glad.
Love That Dog can be best described by quoting directly from the book. Page one begins,
Room 105 - Miss Stretchberry
I don't want to
don't write poetry.
As the poems unfold, it becomes clear that Jack is keeping a verse journal, comprised of original poems and one-sided conversations with his teacher, also in verse, for his class with Miss Stretchberry. In class, the students are also reading other people's poetry and responding to it in their journals, in verse.
I don't understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much
If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You've just got to
It is through the continued practice of writing and his exposure to other poets, especially a specific poem by Walter Dean Myers, that Jack begins to open up. Over the course of this journey, Jack is inspired and influenced by each poem and poet that he reads. When he reads Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," and William Blake's "The Tiger," he writes a poem about a mud spattered blue car in the night. After being assigned to write a poem about a pet, he refuses, saying he doesn't have a pet. Eventually, though, after reading a poem by Valerie Worth about a dog, he does begin to write. And it is heartbreaking. As Jack writes, Miss Stretchberry types up his poems and puts them up on the board in the classroom for all to see, leaving his name off as requested. His peers praise his work, and the continued attention of Miss Stretchberry bolsters Jack and the floodgates open. Walter Dean Myer's poem, "Love that Boy," opens up a whole new world (writing to authors, learning how to type on a computer) to Jack that is so exciting and sweet and rewarding you will be amazed how much imagery, emotion and plot Creech has condensed into the economy of words that is Love That Dog. But, that is the remarkable and wonderful thing about poetry - the magnitude of images, ideas and stories that can be contained in a handful for words. Amazing! And so is this book. Creech
Below, Creech describes how she came to write Love That Dog:
Walter Dean Myers' poem, "Love That Boy", has been hanging on my bulletin board for the past three or four years. It's at eye level, so I probably glance at it a dozen times a day. I love that poem--there is so much warmth and exuberance in it. (The poem is reprinted at the back of Love That Dog.);
One day as I glanced at this poem, I started thinking about the much-loved boy in Myers' poem. I wondered what that boy might love. Maybe a pet? A dog? Maybe also a teacher? And whoosh--out jumped Jack's voice.
Amazing! And so is this book. Creech picks perfect poems for first time poets and, much to my joy, she includes them in the back of the book, although sometimes just the first stanzas of the poems. It is miraculous to me how she uses these poems as the skeleton to build her story on, how the poems influence Jack's writing style and how Jack's world opens up. But, that is why she is a writer, a Newbery award winning writer! For more of Jack and his poetry, read Love that Cat.
For those who like to know this kind of thing (like me) the dog on the cover was drawn by none other than the marvelous William Steig.