My middle-grade book, The Dog at the Gate: How a Throwaway Dog Becomes Special won two Bronze Medals at the 2018 Colorado Independent Publishers (CIPA) EVVY Book Awards! I took these honors to mean that our messages and themes in the book resonated with the judges. Max, the Australian Shepherd protagonist and narrator, experiences what many children do–rejection, loneliness, bullying, and the constant desire for love and acceptance.
Throughout his life story, Max struggles with self-identity, self-confidence, and appropriate decision-making. I wanted children to see Max as a kindred spirit in their journeys to adulthood. Children who suffer neglect and abuse, like Max does in the beginning, often turn to “acting out.” When children know something in their life is wrong, but cannot verbalize or even realize what it is, they often turn their anger and frustration against the next most vulnerable member of their family–which may be their pet.
Animal abuse is endemic in a society that models anger/violence/cruelty. Where humaneness, civility, kindness, and respect rule, the most vulnerable of that society (children & animals) are protected and valued. Children turn to animal abuse for two reasons: they see it manifested by the adults around them, and/or they act out their own emotional turmoils upon those even less powerful than they themselves are in their world. The family dog or cat fits that bill. All mass murderers in history began in their childhoods by abusing/torturing/killing animals.
Max narrates his life story so that young readers may be provided with a window into how pets see their lives with people. Empathy will hopefully result when a child on the cusp of turning to abuse sees that his potential victim is a thinking, feeling, sentient being. Empathy may grow into respect and affection, thereby negating the urge to coldly treat a powerless creature with unrestrained anger. Max undergoes his own frustrations, anger, and loneliness but guides young readers towards more constructive actions. He sets life goals (to find a family/love/acceptance) and is willing to do the work to attain those goals (learn what people want/perform well/and try to help others).
Children can see through Max’s attempts to find his way from rejection, ridicule, and cruelty to acceptance, self-worth/worthiness of others’ care, and success at his chosen outlets (obedience competition). Max finds an advocate, which all children need as well. His foster/adoptive mistress helps him channel his attention deficits and hyper-activity into constructive activities that contribute to his new family. Although he continues to worry if he will be ultimately abandoned again, he finds his answer in the final days of his life, when illness necessitates care–which his mistress and his family freely bestow upon him.
The Dog at the Gate: How a Throwaway Dog Becomes Special illustrates that children do have choices in what kind of adults they become. Children who have emotional and physical life challenges can see that Max overcomes his own with goal-setting, tenacity, willingness to forgive, courage, and integrity. These qualities of character will apply equally well to young humans as to anthropomorphized dogs.