Barbara O’Connor, in a guest lecture for the Readings in Genre course I am taking, identified specific story elements that she tends to focus on in the creation of realistic fiction for children. For her, these elements are dialogue, characters, family relationships and economic class. She discusses the character Georgina in How to Steal a Dog, and highlights how Georgina is constantly making the wrong choices in the book How to Steal a Dog. For me, Georgina’s character is intrinsically tied to the dialogue of the work. Yes, we are treated to spoken dialogue a lot, but the entire book in many ways is a collection of Georgina’s internal dialogue. From her journal entries to her first person narrative, we are constantly in Georgina’s head, sunk deep into her perspective.
O’Connor also mentions that she constantly struggles with the question, “Is this too real for my intended audience?” This question is one I imagine that most writers of children’s realistic fiction must struggle with. It is one I often struggle with in writing young adult fantasy. At what point, does the portrayed reality or fantasy become too real? For most of this book, I was fine with the reality portrayed. Though they probably do not realize the reasons why, most students today have been exposed to that child – the one who comes to school dirty or in the same clothes as the day before, who smells or whose hair is unwashed. Reading a story from the perspective of such a child can help foster understanding and acceptance. As O’Connor puts it, careful depiction of reality can help “open eyes, and thus, the door to tolerance and empathy.”
I consider How to Steal a Dog to be, at its heart, a conscience tale. From start to finish, Georgina is struggling with her conscience. She wants to escape her terrible circumstances and has come up with a plan to do so. Though she knows this plan is wrong, she cannot bear to back down. She is desperate for a solution. I loved the use of the journal as a method for recording her thought processes. This was a perfect device for the reader to really experience Georgina’s planning and plotting, and to ultimately experience her dilemma, her struggle to do the right thing. Georgina captures the focus of the story perfectly when she writes, “THAT is the decision you will have to make.” This is the story we have read and the theme we have internalized – the choices we make determine the people we become.
WARNING - SPOILERS AHEAD
For Georgina, the person who stole a dog is not the person she ultimately decides to become. There is power in this decision because the reader is aware of how hard she struggled to make it. Ultimately, although I enjoyed reading this book, I was unhappy with the ending. I think, as a child, this is the kind of book I would not have enjoyed reading. Even as a child, I was not much for realistic fiction. Bridge to Terabithia left me sobbing my eyes out and depressed for days. I was angry at the author of the book and mad at myself for reading it. I was the child who needed that happily ever after, who wanted things wrapped up neatly at the end of my books. I wanted to know that everything made sense and that everything was okay with all of my characters. Too much reality and I was unsatisfied.
How to Steal a Dog was just that for me – an overdose of reality, which is unfortunate because I enjoyed much about the book. I thought Georgina’s struggle with her conscience was very well done and I loved her journaling through that struggle. However, at the end, what I was left with was the powerlessness of Georgina. All that she could control was her own decisions and her own actions. Everything else was not hers to control. Children already know this. They feel this lack of control viscerally. To have it painted so thoroughly in a book was depressing for me. Georgina was a pawn of the adults around her, homeless and then not homeless, not because of anything she did, but because of life and fate moving her family to its own rhythms.
For me, this was entirely too much reality. Too much like real life, not enough of a happy ending. The fact that they had a place to stay at the end was not enough of a happy ending for me. In fact, in some ways, this turn of events made everything worse. All of the effort that Georgina had gone through, that entire struggle with her conscience, and in the end, their homelessness was ended much as it began, through no control of her own, through the vagaries of fate.
I wanted the ending that would make things neat and connected for me. I wanted Georgina to make peace with Mookie, not for him to simply disappear from their lives, much as her father had. While I think the scene with Carmella was well-done (she did not make excuses for Georgina’s actions, but held her accountable to them, and in the end, forgave her), I was still left wanting more. I wanted an acknowledgement of all that Georgina had been dealing with, that homelessness was nothing a child should ever have to endure. I wanted lonely Carmella to offer Georgina’s family a home and for all of them to find forgiveness and peace together. And I wanted Mookie to know where they were and to come back to visit every now and then. I wanted a happy ending that would de-emphasize the powerlessness that Georgina felt. Instead, for me, the ending simply highlighted it.