Tween

A Reader’s Best Friend:
The Importance of Dogs
in Life and Literature

by Paul Griffin

Photo credit: John Howard, DigitalVision/Getty Images

Up here in my neck of the woods, in northern Manhattan, every day is a dog day. We always have at least two angels hanging around the house, sometimes four and once even five, which was insane in a New York City apartment. Presently we have three: Ray-Ray (Liotta from “Goodfellas”), Eddie (Nice Guy Eddie from “Reservoir Dogs”), and MiMi (from “La Boheme” — we needed to class up the joint a little bit). Eddie is the inspiration for Flip, the pup featured in When Friendship Followed Me Home. My wife was walking home one day, and little flea-struck Eddie followed her, so there you go!

I think we love dogs (and animals in general) in our reading lives for the same reason we love them in our lives outside of reading: they’re just the most terrible liars. Maybe I should say, they’re incapable of being deceitful. They wear their hearts on their fur? I’m certain of this: their friendship is constant. Yes, they’re opportunistic scavengers, but keep them fed and really they just want two things: to be loved and, even more, to love you with all their might.

I remember my middle grade years were tumultuous. Family and friends became ill and died, suddenly in some cases. There were new shocks and wonders, new triumphs and failures, new jobs, new schools, new friends, new bullies. But always there was CoCo, our beloved mutt, and Luv the Sheepdog mix, and Tara the Shepherd. I would come home from a tough day and curl up with CoCo in front of the coal stove, and the heat from the fire and CoCo’s warmth would melt away my worries. Loyalty. Really, what matters more?

I also remember the middle grade years were full of very big dreams. One of mine was to make a living writing stories. My first efforts always had a faithful sidekick of the non-human variety — usually a dog, but mice-loving cats and the mice themselves were welcome into my dreamworlds too, and rats, monkeys, and birds as well. Now, at 50, my stories still feature pups.

Dogs are the great connectors for me. They introduce me to other dog owners, new friendships. In books too, the dogs enrich my friendships. Where would I be without Opal and her magnificent heart, had I not picked up Winn-Dixie for the dog on the cover? Old Dan and Little Ann, Buck from Call of the Wild, Shiloh, Old Yeller, Enzo from Racing in the Rain, Diva and her faithful feline companion Flea, the trio from The Incredible Journey, Willie Morris’s Skip — all took me on the most beautiful adventures. If you’re looking for a new story that features a most amazing friend-connector, in this case a dog who is going blind, check out Cynthia Lord’s gorgeous A Handful of Stars. Lucky is the pup’s name, and how lucky I was to meet, through Lucky, Salma Santiago, whose bravery as she stands up to prejudice made my hair stand up and my heart ache.

Lucky and all of the animals I mentioned above remind me that life is beautiful, even when times are challenging; that while they’re short, our lives can be so full of love. The middle grade years — that’s when it begins to hit us full on, in our reading and in our lives, that our existence is bittersweet. I’ll end by focusing on the sweet: as I’m writing this, my little pal Eddie is under my desk, flat on his back, yipping at me for a belly scratch. I’m pretty sure I can read his simple, beautiful mind: What could possibly be more important right now than rubbing my tummy?  Priorities, people!

Happy reading, and here’s hoping the dog days stay with you all year round.