Fuse #8

Monday, March 05, 2007

Review of the Day: How to Steal a Dog

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor. Frances Foster Books (an FSG imprint). $16.00

Lure ‘em in with a cute dog and then hit ‘em hard and fast with a realistic story about how it feels to be homeless. It’s the old bait n’ switcheroo. Not that Barbara O’Connor’s book, “How to Steal a Dog” plays anything but fair with her young audiences. After all, the first line in this book is the incredibly memorable, “The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.” Bam! Right in the kisser. There’s not a child alive, boy or girl, who isn’t going to want to know more after those twenty-four words hit the page. O’Connor has created a nice little novel here with an ending that could have stood a little more padding. But while I feel that there were a couple off moments here and there, on the whole this is a new take on the question of whether or not a person can justify a wrong if they see no other way out of a predicament.

First of all, Georgina is not a bad person. If you saw her in school you might think she was a kind of unkempt and dirty person, but that’s just because she, her little brother Toby, and their mom have been living in their car ever since their dad up and left them. It hasn’t been easy for Georgina, of course. Her best friend Luanne has been distancing herself lately. The family’s never safe and Georgina’s having a really hard time getting her schoolwork done. If only there were some way she could get a lot of money for the rent of a new apartment. Then Georgina sees a MISSING poster for a dog offering $500 and it all comes together. Of course! The perfect solution! All she needs to do is find a rich dog, steal it, wait for the reward posters to go up, and then collect the money for her family. But every perfect plan, no matter how well executed, is bound to run into some unexpected mishaps along the way. Georgina is not a bad person, but she is a confused person. One that’s going to have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy.

The ironic thing here is that, in a way, Georgina is exceedingly talented at what she does. O’Connor has her heroine writing dog stealing rules in her notebook that supplement the narrative beautifully. Her rules regarding finding a dog (avoid barkers and dogs that don’t look loved) and ways in which a person should scout out a potential dog-stealing location are on the ball. And when those same rules come back to bite her in the butt later on in the story, you can see why. Planning is one thing. Executing, another entirely. Georgina is so good at her planning, in fact, that my credulity was stretched just a tad when she fails to remember to get the dog food and water. Still, with a myriad of things on her mind it’s not impossible that when planning out her details she’d miss some of the more obvious needs.

The book essentially asks the readers whether or not extraordinarily bad circumstances are an excuse for bad behavior. It’s a morality tale for fifth graders. Throughout “How to Steal a Dog” you definitely identify with Georgina. Little brothers are always annoying, but no more so than when they’re sharing a backseat with you, rather than a bedroom. Now for the sake of the story, Georgina holds off on returning Willy longer than either her character or the book itself can really justify. I mean, once it becomes clear that the money is not forthcoming, there’s no reason to put her through any additional mental anguish. Eventually Georgina and Toby meet and semi-befriend a homeless man that stands in as a kind of Thoreau-esque conscience. In him, Georgina is able to examine her own actions and assess the damage she’s done. Really though, the character that I thought received the most interesting story arc was the woman Georgina stole the dog from in the first place. Known here as Carmella, she’s overweight and not particularly attractive, but her love of her dog Willy is instantly recognizable. I liked O’Connor’s decision not to have Georgina seriously befriend this woman after her dog mysteriously “disappears”. She doesn’t grow overly attached, though she does come to worry about how her actions have affected another human being.

Still, there were other things I didn’t understand. Georgina constantly looks worse in school due to her circumstances. She apparently wasn’t able to salvage her hairbrush when the family got booted out of their apartment. As the book goes on she gets nastier and nastier. How hard is it to locate another hairbrush? And wouldn't her mother want her kids to look halfway decent so that the authorities in the school didn’t get suspicious and start calling the authorities? Then again Georgina’s mom seems to be under a great deal of stress. She might not even be able to see past herself to notice her kids’ increasing sloppiness. I did feel that the ending skidded to a halt without tying up a lot of loose ends though. It’s a quick finish and then you wonder exactly whether or not the peaches and cream ending is really going to be as happy dappy as Georgina implies.

It’s a bit of a tangled book, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t make for a good read. Personally, I feel a revision here or there wouldn’t have been out of place, but as it stands I hope kids discover and read it. Books about homeless kids have basically ground to a halt since the heyday of the Reagan era. Looking at the selection of children’s fiction sitting on our bookstore shelves you’d swear that homelessness had been entirely eradicated in this day and age. This book puts a problem into perspective with a clever premise and a rewarding story. It isn’t a perfect creation, but it may well be a necessary one. I appreciated the effort.

Notes On the Cover: Bravo. Bravo Farrar, Straus & Giroux. You’ve managed to create the most adorable cover featuring a canine since last year’s Sheep by Valerie Hobbs. This is almost too perfect in execution. Nitpickers might point out that this scene never happens in the book, but I say pah. Pah, I say! First of all, this dog looks exactly like the one in the book, down to the black circle around one eye. He’s the right size and his little body is just adorable. I love the use of yellow as a background as well. It really allows the book to pop. Then there are the aesthetics to consider. The black and white of the dog match the black and the white of the spine. This book is one of those rare covers that will lure in an equal amount of boys AND girls. It’s a magic combination, and I just want to credit jacket designer Barbara Grzeslo for a bang-up job. Getty Images strikes again. THIS is a cover.

First Lines Worth Remembering: “The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.”

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