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.
Author/Illustrator: Emily Arnold McCully
Publisher: Henry Holt
Genre: Fiction picture book (fictionalized history)
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.