In this slim, brisk novel by Patricia MacLachlan––author of Newbery-winning Sarah, Plain and Tall––the dog Teddy can understand human speech, but only children and poets can understand him.
Teddy rescues siblings Nickel and Flora from a snowstorm and brings them to the forest cabin he once shared with his owner, Sylvan. As the mystery of Sylvan’s disappearance slowly unravels, the story meditates on love, poetry, grief, and life.
Here are three things writers can learn from The Poet’s Dog.
1. Consider your perspective.
This book is told from the point of view of the title character: the poet’s dog, an Irish wolfhound named Teddy.
Choosing to tell the story in Teddy’s first-person voice gives MacLachlan ample opportunity to offer up quirky profundities that could only come from a dog’s point of view.
“Being a writer is not easy, you know. It is, now that I think of it, either full of sorrow or full of joy.”
“Like being a dog,” I say.
Of course, it takes an extra leap of creativity to imagine the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and tactile experiences of a canine narrator. But if a writer can pull it off––as MacLachlan does––an animal perspective provides fertile ground for a rich and poignant story.
2. Do a lot with a little.
The language in The Poet’s Dog is sparse and direct. The story moves quickly from one scene to another. MacLachlan makes this work by choosing evocative details that bring her characters and scenes to life.
Sylvan types on his computer, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning and muttering to himself. I sit up on the red rug and yawn my yawn that ends with a squeak.
This description is adorable and fits the book’s earnest, cozy tone. It sets up a vivid scene full of intimacy, routine, and closeness: the same writerly muttering, the same red rug, the same doggy yawn. With a few precise details, MacLachlan conveys so much about the relationship between Teddy and Sylvan––and added significant weight to Teddy’s sense of loneliness and loss.
3. Search for a timeline that suits your story’s soul.
In most short, simple middle grade fiction, authors opt to write their stories chronologically. Many kids reading 89-page books are just getting their sea legs when it comes to enjoying novels on their own. Needlessly hopping around in time can be a distraction, and often doesn’t add much to the story anyway.
Here, though, MacLachlan departs from the norm by using interwoven narratives to connect the past and the present. The Poet’s Dog is told out of order, with flashbacks to Teddy’s life with his owner Sylvan interspersed with the present-day tale of his interactions with Flora and Nickel as they wait out the storm.
With this non-linear narrative, MacLachlan is able to show the cyclical nature of loss and joy, of rescuing and being rescued. It works well––perhaps because for poets, children, and dogs, time seems to work just a little differently.
Want to chat about The Poet’s Dog and other great YA and middle grade novels? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.