Perfect Picture Book Friday – Strongheart

Perfect Picture Book Fridays are the creation of the lovely children’s book author Susanna Leonard Hill. Check in each week on Fridays for new book reviews. Susanna also has a complete list (alphabetically and by theme) of all the book reviews. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re looking for activities for a book, or books focused on a particular theme.

strongheartTitle: Strongheart: The World’s First Movie Star Dog

Author/Illustrator: Emily Arnold McCully

Publisher: Henry Holt

Year: 2014

Genre: Fiction picture book (fictionalized history)

Ages: 4-8

Themes: Dogs; loyalty; film history

Opening: This is the story of Etzel von Oeringen, who became the first movie star dog. His life began a long way from Hollywood. Etzel was born in Germany during World War I. He was the son and grandson of champion police dogs.

Synopsis: (from publisher’s website) Strongheart may have been a movie star, but he wasn’t always famous. He started out as a police dog who could sniff out criminals and march like a soldier, but he didn’t know how to have fun. Larry Trimble was a Hollywood director who wanted to put Strongheart in his movies—not just as a pet but as the lead actor. Larry taught him to play with toys and walk like a regular dog. In his films, Strongheart brought audiences to tears. He was a sensation! But when Strongheart’s military training led to trouble, was his career over? Set in the early days of silent movies, Emily Arnold McCully’s extraordinary story about a real-life hero will capture the hearts of dog lovers and movie fans everywhere.

What makes it great: A high-interest topic (dogs and movies) combined with history, and McCully’s beautiful watercolor illustrations made this book stand out on the shelf.

What readers notice: My daughter is a dog-lover in a house full of cat people, so she was especially pleased with this book. She was interested enough in the story that she let me read her the Author’s Note in the back, which tells more details about the real story of Strongheart.

What a writer notices: The fact that this book is listed as ‘nonfiction’ on the publisher’s website, yet is listed as ‘fiction’ on the copyright page, and shelved as ‘fiction’ in my library, speaks volumes about the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction today. True stories are almost never as streamlined as fictional picture book stories, so I’m always curious to see what an author leaves out, or where she chooses to change details. For example, the climax of this story describes an episode where Strongheart attacks a visitor to his owners’ home, possibly ending his movie career. The book depicts his owners in the scene, but the author’s note at the back reveals that in fact, the owners were away traveling at the time and Strongheart was being cared for by a friend. How much can an author leave out or change before a story morphs from nonfiction into fiction? Does it matter to the story that this detail was changed? To some, it might, but to me it didn’t matter. The essential truth of the story was kept intact, and McCully used the author’s note effectively to explain the true circumstances.


Kids might be interested in finding out about more movie dogs in history.

16 thoughts on “Perfect Picture Book Friday – Strongheart

  1. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    Nice observations on the blurriness of categorization and shelving!
    Keeps things interesting in the NF/F realm.

  2. SevenAcreSky says:

    Interesting classifications…I love that the author clarified the actual facts. If that was the only variation from actual in the book, I’m curious as to why he ‘dramatized’ it. But there may have been more incidents treated that way. What was the point of view? I will have to find this book. Thanks Carrie for the post.

    • Carrie Finison says:

      I have a feeling she dramatized that incident just to streamline the plot a bit and avoid introducing a whole new character (the friend) just for that one scene. But it would be a great question to ask!

  3. Patricia Tilton says:

    Yes, I felt the story as biographical too. Interesting that it was categorized as fiction and nonfiction. It is such a beautiful story for kids about a real-life hero dog. Know it will capture the hearts of of many dog lovers.

  4. Diane Tulloch says:

    Ha, we think alike Carrie (another dog story). Very interesting finding. For me the story is what it is all about. It’s fiction based on a true hero (the dog). What I love is that the author has put a fact note/biography about the true story. I love those as a reader. As a writer it is the story along with the beautiful cover illustration, that captured me and the opening lines drew me in. I want to read more. Great review, Carrie.

  5. Romelle Broas says:

    Thanks for sharing this book, Carrie. I love books about dogs. Can’t wait to read this one, especially since it is “fictionalized history.”

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