Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reading: Dog Heaven (A Post Dedicated to Nellie - Picture Book)

I have always loved dogs, and I have had the pleasure of six wonderful dogs sharing their homes with me: Oscar, a miniature dachshund that belonged to my mom long before I was born and was quite a good sport when I came along to disturb his peace; Nellie, a dachshund that I got to pick out in the summer when I was ten years old; Linus and Lucy, twin dachshunds who live in Indiana with my mom and dad and always greet me at the door when I come home; and Ralphie and Randy, my sweet little boys who love kisses and cuddle time and walking the boardwalk at Virginia Beach.  I have loved all of the dogs in my family, but when I think about Nellie, I feel bittersweet.  She was a sweet girl with a disability, Addison's Disease, which affected her adrenal glands and caused her to take medicine for her entire life.  The medicine also made her slightly overweight, and someone once rudely referred to her as a "bratwurst dog!"  But I loved her just the same.  

When I began college, I moved away from home and saw less and less of Nellie.  I rejoiced during school vacations because it meant that I got to see my dog!  I noticed her growing older and grayer and less playful, and I felt that my time away from home was a disappointment to her.  Although she was most fond of my mom, I was her best friend!  (Well.  Actually, I was probably her second best friend, as she carted around a stuffed lion for eleven years!  She would take time to find the perfect hiding spot for it  - behind the curtains, underneath the TV stand - and if anybody saw where she hid it, by golly, she'd have to relocate the thing and cry until she was sure that her baby was safe!)  

One summer, I went on a trip to El Paso to earn six college credit hours and to have teaching experience in an ESL classroom.  I constantly called home asking about Nellie and reminded my parents to bring Nellie with them when they picked me up at school in the beginning of August.  When I finally arrived back in Indiana, I rushed to my parents' car and immediately asked about my sweet girl.  Hadn't I reminded them all summer to bring her?  To my dismay, Nellie had died a week before I returned.  I felt like a heavy weight had been placed on my shoulders.  I couldn't comprehend what had happened, and I still feel that my absence may have somehow contributed to her demise.  Perhaps she died of a broken heart or loneliness.  Perhaps she felt that I had abandoned her!  My parents told me that she lived a long, happy life, especially for having had to endure the effects of Addison's Disease, but even today, my heart sinks when I think about how I wasn't there to say good-bye to my sweet little friend.  She is buried in my parents' backyard under a cement lamb with her stuffed lion, and I hope that she is running around in Dog Heaven, eating kitty-shaped biscuits and sleeping in clouds with God watching over her so she doesn't have bad dreams.

Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant, is a comfort to readers like me who have ever lost a faithful four-legged friend.  While it is intended for children, the idea of Dog Heaven, where dogs that never got to have a home on Earth can finally get one, is soothing, and I hope with all of my heart that it does exist! I hope that Nellie's spirit does get to visit the backyard, check in on the cat (who misses her dearly), and dig in the fallen tree branches out in the woods.  I hope that she is in Dog Heaven, being petted and reminded a thousand times a day that she is a good dog.  I hope that she gets an extra biscuit under the table because she did always like food!  I hope that she has made buddies with Oscar.  I hope that the dogs that never got a chance to be good dogs on Earth get to fulfill their destinies in Dog Heaven.  

Nellie joined my family on June 17, 1998.  Her lion,
seen in the picture with her above, joined us that
August, and the two were inseparable. 

The acrylic paintings in Dog Heaven are colorful and hopeful, my favorite being the one in which the dogs are sleeping peacefully in their fluffy cloud pillows.  I was surprised to see a painting of God, as I've never actually seen an illustration of God in any children's book I have ever read!  He seems like a nice gentleman and is wearing bright yellow pants, a blue sweater, and a bow-tie.  He also has gray hair and a gray mustache on a friendly face slightly covered by a brown hat.  Still, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this depiction of God in a children's book.  God is white, and while Dog Heaven is based in imagination, I'm not sure how students of color would feel seeing God being depicted as a white man.  Perhaps they have always imagined God to share their skin color, and seeing a depiction of God at such a young age in this way might be startling to them.  It makes me feel that maybe Cynthia Rylant intended this book to be written for white children, as it doesn't particularly represent a multicultural Heaven. (I realize that many cultures do not believe in Heaven or believe in a different type of Heaven, but people from all cultures can, and I feel like there should have been more representation.)  It reminds me of a child that I met while teaching in the Mississippi Delta a few summers ago.  He wished that he could be white because it seemed to him that the most powerful people in town were white men; they were the ones who owned the businesses, the ones that made the rules, the ones who seemingly operated the community in that child's eyes.  If that child were to read this book, the image of a white God only seems to perpetuate his believe and may disappoint him or make him think that he is not as important because of his skin color.  The images that children see in the media and in books can become imprinted in their minds and be hard to shake away.  Do I think it was wrong to create an illustration of God?  Well, no.  But I do think it is a bold move to create this image in a children's book with God representing one human race.  

The story in Dog Heaven shows the power of children's literature to not just entertain or to teach but to inspire, to imagine, and to comfort.  Any child that has ever lost a pet will be comforted by the story in Dog Heaven.  While it does not change the pain caused by the absence of a friend, it does instill comfort knowing that one's companion will always be loved.

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