True story: My husband and I read Love that Dog years ago when it was first published. We cried. We bought 15 copies for my sister-in-law, an English teacher, so she could use it to teach her students about poetry and novels. Love that Dog is both, isn’t it? It’s poetry, and it’s a novel. In fact, it’s a novel about poetry about poetry. Whew! I get cross-eyed just thinking about it. It thrills me to know you’re studying Love that Dog today, twelve years later, CFG.
I have to ask you. Did you come to love that dog too? And did you love that boy? Come on. Admit it.
Love that Dog is about many things – grief, healing, kindness, the power of art, and the impact great teachers can have on young learners. For me, it’s about permission to write poetry.
Jack starts out protesting. He says he can’t write poems. That’s something girls do. His brain is empty. He doesn’t understand poems. Wait – what he wrote isn’t really a poem. It’s just words. A picture in his head. Ms. Stretchberry only made it a poem by typing it up. Well … okay, maybe that one was a poem, and she can share it, but only if she keeps his name off the paper.
Jack becomes a poet, despite protesting, denying it, and hiding from it. In the end, he can proudly show even Mr. Walter Dean Myers what he’s written. We could say Love that Dog is the story of a boy named Jack who learns to give himself permission to poem. (I’m making “poem” a verb. Writers can make mischief with words.)
When I teach writing to children and adults, I urge them to give themselves permission to write. People want to write, but they’re afraid. The same is true of dancing, singing, painting, and poetry. The arts that inspire us also intimidate us. We’ve seen great dancers, heard great singers, read great novels and great poems, and we think, who am I to dare to try it? Won’t my mistakes be obvious? Won’t people laugh at me? If I put my heart into my art, people will see the most precious inner part of me. If they laugh at that, I’ll be crushed.
Jack wanted to share how much he loved his dog, and how much he misses him, but that was almost too private, and too sad, to share. Ms. Stretchberry helped Jack give himself Permission To Poem (PTP), and once Jack knew he was free to write, with full PTP, he found a way to celebrate Sky. He could remember his dog with more joy and less sadness.
Years ago I learned to give myself PTW (permission to write) stories, and that was a great victory. But poetry, I thought, was advanced, special, and magical. Only brilliant minds should attempt it. Poetry made me afraid. But about a year ago, I felt my heart calling me toward poetry. So privately, quietly, I began writing poems in a notebook. Faster and faster they came. Sometimes they made my heart sing. Sometimes they made me cry. Just like Jack, I had to overcome fear to give myself PTP.
Recently I attended a painting class for women my age who hadn’t painted in twenty years. We were excited, but nervous, too. Students asked repeatedly, “Am I doing it right?” They needed PTP – permission to paint. I tried to remember what I teach students about writing. Go for it! Give it a try! Don’t be afraid! And so I painted a pear. I tried to make a confident pear, not a nervous pear. I will share it with you.