October 24, 2013
(++++) TUGGING AT HEARTSTRINGS
The Invisible Boy. By Trudy Ludwig. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $16.99.
Lucky Dog: Twelve Tales of Rescued Dogs. Scholastic. $15.99.
The title The Invisible Boy conjures up images of superheroes, of comic-book-style escapades, of great battles between good and evil. It certainly does not make a reader expect the gentle and touching story that Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton actually produce. For this is the tale of a boy who is not really invisible but who feels invisible –largely ignored and occasionally mocked by classmates, receiving little attention from his teacher because of his quiet unobtrusiveness, and being left out of everyday activities because he just doesn’t seem to be there. Much has been made recently of overt bullying and attempts to stop it, but what happens in The Invisible Boy is something subtler and in its own way equally painful. Brian is simply treated by most people as if he does not exist, receiving neither the positive attention of those who excel nor the negative focus of those who act out. Ludwig gives Brian a special talent: he likes to draw, creating superheroes “with the power to make friends wherever they go.” But Ludwig stops short of making the story maudlin: she finds a way out of invisibility for Brian when a new student, Justin, joins the class, and Brian, who is sweet and good-hearted but just not very attention-getting, uses one of his drawings to make Justin, who is Korean, feel welcome after other students mock the bulgogi he brings for lunch. Justin soon gets included in school activities, while Brian remains invisible to the other students – but Justin insists on starting to include Brian, and soon, Brian’s talents begin to blossom and he becomes more and more visible. Literally so: Barton moves the story along visually with great skill, initially showing Brian in thin black-and-white amid the colors of school life, then gradually filling him in and filling him out as he is accepted and noticed by more and more classmates, until he is finally just as visible and colorful as they and participates to the same degree. The Invisible Boy is quite clearly intended as a teaching tool: Ludwig, a frequent speaker on bullying prevention, includes discussion questions and recommended readings for kids and adults at the end. And yes, the book is somewhat on the preachy and obvious side in some of its narration. But it highlights a real issue for many families, works on its own as a well-wrought story, and (thanks to Barton) really shows what left-out children feel like – potentially making it easier for families to discuss the fears and worries of real-life Brians.
Kids who are left out and dogs that are left out can make a great combination: children not fortunate enough to have a Justin through whom they can make peer connections may find themselves feeling much more a part of everyday life thanks to a canine in the family. Indeed, one story in Lucky Dog, C. Alexander London’s “Big Dogs,” is specifically about bullying and the breakthrough that an adopted dog brings to a boy named Simon who is teased mercilessly because he sometimes lisps. This is one of the dozen stories, by a baker’s dozen authors, in a book that works better than many anthologies because the tales (tails?) are genuinely connected through the Pawley Rescue Center, a fictional and almost too-good-to-be-true place where rescued dogs await the permanent homes that they find with entirely appropriate families throughout the book. Would that all pounds, kennels and rescue centers were as effective as Pawley, and staffed by so many wonderful, caring and deeply involved people as the ones in this book! And would that all potential adopters were as sensitive to the needs of lost and abandoned animals as are the families here! In Marlane Kennedy’s “Package Deal,” for example, two rescued dogs have bonded, but a family can only afford to adopt one – and that dog, Bagley, so misses his shelter friend, Lena, that the family realizes Bagley must go back to the shelter. But then Rudy, the boy who chose Bagley, arranges to have Lena adopted by the next-door neighbor by promising to help with all aspects of Lena’s care, and the neighbor agrees, and so two dogs are adopted; and Rudy is true to his word; and everything works out beautifully. Sometimes life would be a lot better if it imitated art, and it is wonderful to report that all royalties from sales of Lucky Dog, an estimated $0.22 to $1.60 per copy, are being donated to an animal-welfare nonprofit group called RedRover. But of course that will not be the reason most people will buy this heartwarming story collection. The stories work as stories, not merely as teaching tools – much as The Invisible Boy works on its own despite its larger agenda. In Lucky Dog, there is Leslie Margolis’ “Bird Dog and Jack,” in which a boy whose parents have divorced gets a dog for his 11th birthday and realizes that, even though times will be difficult for the split-up family, for now he can count on some stability. There is Tui T. Sutherland’s amusing story from a dog’s point of view, “The Incredibly Important True Story of Me!” – in which the self-described “Pomeranian Perfection Personified” and his very best canine friend get to go home together with just the right family. Other contributing authors are Kirby Larson, Ellen Miles, Teddy Slater, Michael Northrop, Randi Barrow, Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, and Allan Woodrow. Story after story explores the wonderfulness of human-canine bonding and the importance of adopting from a shelter, a teachable moment for parents who may be understandably upset because President Obama’s family, like far too many others, chose not to adopt even though shelters have large numbers of purebreds as well as mixed breeds. Lucky Dog is filled with stories of dogs lucky enough to be chosen to go home with just the right families – but the book could just as well have been called Lucky Human, for this is a relationship that decidedly works both ways.