Ann M. Martin's A Dog's Life

Book Focus: October 2005

By Liz Szabla
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

This heart-moving tale of an abandoned dog facing indignity with courage appeals to all who love animal stories.

A Dog's Life: The Autobiography of a Stray
By Ann M. Martin
0-439-71559-8, $16.99, Ages 9–12  

I didn't own a dog as a child, but I loved books about dogs and other animals. Whether an old coon dog or a black stallion was on the cover, I gravitated to these stories in a way that I now understand is purely natural: Like the animals they brought to life, these stories were my companions as I grew up.

I saw the world in new ways after reading them. For me, the first dog who felt like a companion, and who I shed tears for, was Sounder. As a young reader, I often judged books by their covers (I still do) and I remember what first drew me to Sounder: the simple gray-toned painting of a dog in profile. There is a boy on the cover too, and a road, and a tree. (And, on my edition, a shiny Newbery Medal, which no doubt helped sway my mother to spring for a $3.95 hardcover in 1970.) I wasn't a "dog person," yet I was so drawn to this dog, with his regal profile and slightly weary expression.

Thirty-five years later, as I read the manuscript for A Dog's Life, I found myself drawn to another dog before a cover even existed. Ann Martin takes readers on a vastly different journey than Sounder, or its literary cousin, Old Yeller. But A Dog's Life offers the same kind of powerful connection to a dog you won't forget. In telling her own story, the stray dog, Squirrel, speaks for so many unwanted souls, both animal and human. So many times this year, after the book was in production and then off to press, Squirrel's voice has come back to me any time I see a living being facing indignity with courage:

...I can't speak for all dogs, of course, since not all dogs are alike. And most certainly, not all dogs have the same experiences. I've known of dogs who dined on fine foods and led pampered lives, sleeping on soft beds and being served hamburger and chicken and even steak. I've known of dogs who looked longingly at warm homes, who were not invited inside, who stayed in a garage or a shed or under a wheelbarrow for a few days, and then moved on. I've known of dogs who were treated cruelly by human hands and dogs who were treated with the gentlest touch, dogs who starved and dogs who grew fat from too many treats.

I've known all these dogs, and I've been all these dogs.

It's been interesting to see that A Dog's Life is also serving as a call to arms, of sorts, for pet owners. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly notes that the novel is "sure to melt the heart of animal lovers," and adds, "Besides offering a glimpse of how strays learn to fend for themselves, this saga of a lonely dog delivers a subtle but strong message to potential dog owners, conveying the negative effects of neglecting, ditching or abusing a pet."
Soon after that review appeared, I received an email from one of our sales reps, who passed along a note from Elizabeth Baldwin, the events coordinator and buyer at Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego:

"There is more to owning a pet than providing a place to live and food.
They are not toys to discard when you tire of them. For me, they are
just like kids: once you get one, they are yours for life. Ann's book
should be mandatory reading for anyone making a decision to become a
pet owner."

Ann Martin works with an animal rescue organization in upstate New York, and her beloved dog, Sadie, the daughter of a stray, was the inspiration for A Dog's Life. In a note to readers that appeared in the advance edition of the book, Ann wrote, "I often wonder what would have happened if [Sadie's mother] had given birth to her puppies along the highway or in a wheelbarrow in someone's garden shed. Would Sadie and her brothers have survived? What kind of dog would Sadie have grown up to be? Would she have found a home?"

Luckily, Sadie found Ann and Ann found Sadie, and has now found Squirrel. Ann Martin is a writer who reinvents herself so impressively with each new book. Among her many gifts, I most admire the ways in which she remains true to the voices of her diverse casts of characters, from Belle Teal Harper in Belle Teal, Hattie Owen in A Corner of the Universe (her Newbery Honor book) and Eleanor Roosevelt Dingman in Here Today, to the stray named Squirrel. I like to imagine that readers will still think of Squirrel years after first meeting her. Perhaps her portrait on the cover of A Dog's Life, which the artist based on Sadie, will draw readers as I was drawn 35 years ago to William Armstrong's novel.

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