Georgina Hayes lives in the family car with her mom and little brother, and she doesn’t like it one little bit! Her dad left the small-town North Carolina family with only “three rolls of quarters and a mayonnaise jar full of wadded-up dollar bills.” Georgina’s struggle to conceal her current situation from her friends while scheming to get the family back on their feet forms the basis of How to Steal a Dog, a thoughtful and engaging tween novel by Barbara O'Connor.
Prompted by a lost-pet reward poster, Georgina, with the assistance of her little brother, plots to steal a local canine and claim the reward money when she returns the dog. But this is not a grab-and-go. Georgina carefully plans the heist, listing the steps in her purple notebook. Of course, there are some unexpected challenges along the way and the plan doesn’t quite get the desired results.
Georgina’s struggles with homelessness and her dog-napping are at the center of How to Steal a Dog. O'Connor subtly works-in the details of the family’s existence – washing in restaurant bathrooms; trying to keep food chilled in a foam cooler; getting sleep and a little privacy in a car; scoping out new parking spaces for the car and moving it every few days to avoid suspicion. Georgina’s school work and social life also slide. Of course, there’s no opportunity to complete a science project for school. Dance lessons and Girl Scouts have fallen by the wayside. Once a popular student making good grades, Georgina’s life is turned upside down.
Teachers and parents, don’t worry. Although Georgina does indeed steal a dog, she continuously grapples with her moral indiscretion. At the beginning of the story, she sees the theft only as a means to an end. But as the book progresses she experiences the distress she causes the dog’s owner and the effect on the otherwise happy, friendly pup. (Spoiler alert!) Georgina returns the dog, and apologizes to the owner, much wiser for the experience. O'Connor adds enough humor to keep the tone light in most places. The ending isn’t exactly happy, but it’s “happier,” which is good enough for Georgina and her family.
The beauty of How to Steal a Dog is that it will work with so many different audiences at so many levels. Not since Because of Winn Dixie has there been a character so thoughtful and engaging. (In fact, Georgina reminds me of India Opal in many ways.) Elementary readers will enjoy the quick plot and the likable characters. Older readers will appreciate the juxtaposition of certain characters and situations. For example, Georgina often feels like her mother isn’t doing enough to help the family (although she certainly is.) But when taking care of the stolen dog, Georgina forgets food and water, and doesn’t exercise the dog frequently. Georgina strives for the stability of a home, but she gains wisdom from a vagabond who lives unencumbered by daily responsibilities.
Teachers will also get a real heart tug as they read about the importance of school in Georgina’s unstable world.
“I hadn’t been doing too good in school lately, but I still looked forward to being there. At least at school, I knew how my day was going to go. I knew we’d say the Pledge of Allegiance and then we’d raise our hands if we wanted grilled cheese instead of chicken fingers for lunch. Then we’d look up there on the chalkboard and our whole day would be written out. Math and then reading. A spelling test and then gym. No surprises.
“Not like after school, when I never knew what was going to happen next. It seemed like something new was always coming my way, and most times it wasn’t good.”
Buy a few copies of How to Steal a Dog for your library media center, and add it to your classroom library. Recommend it to readers, and put a copy in your principal’s mailbox. I’m trying to think of someone/anyone I wouldn’t recommend this book to, and I can’t. It’s that good.
Teachers – share this book with your students. Lead discussions. Open their eyes to a world they may not understand at first. But tread carefully. You may just have a Georgina in your classroom.