For most kids, growing up is more or less about coming to grips with the fact that Life Is Not Fair. Bad stuff happens. Sometimes “little bad,” sometimes “big bad,” depending on your luck. You complain about it because you hope some adult will fix it. A lot of the time no one fixes anything and the sting just goes away.
But for Georgina Hayes, Life Is Not Fair is much more than a passing state of mind. Ever since her father up and left, she and her little brother and her mom have been living in the family car, and keeping it a secret from almost everyone. Georgina’s mom is working two jobs, trying to save enough money for first month’s rent, but it seems like a happy ending is very far away. When Georgina sees a lost dog poster promising a reward of $500, the wheels start turning and she decides that the only thing between her family and their next place to live, is a dog owned by someone with deep pockets. She sets about writing up a list of instructions for How to Steal a Dog, and sets her plan into action. Naturally, Georgina discovers that the best laid plans are often only a breath away from spiraling into a big ‘ole mess.
Barbara O’Connor really captures Georgina’s desperation and frustration and portrays the hardships of the family with sufficient (but not overwhelming) realism. You have a strong sense of just how alone this kid feels most of the time, and how her situation really does cut her off from the “normal” world around her.
One of the big themes this story tackles is the danger inherent in judging others. Georgina’s best friend Luanne abandons Georgina when she finds out the truth. For a while, Georgina can’t understand why her mom doesn’t try harder to make things better. She makes some shaky assumptions about various dog owners while she’s trying to find the right dog to steal. As readers, we wonder about what kind of kid would go through with stealing a stranger’s pet, even in a desperate situation. I like the fact that there are layers of judgment happening. We read. We form opinions about the characters as they make judgments about other characters in the story. Just like Georgina, we find that nothing is really as straightforward as we might want it to be.
This book will help to get kids talking about how tricky and relative morals can be. Barbara O’Connor has a website, and you’ll find a discussion guide there for How to Steal a Dog (Barbara O’Connor). This is a dog story with real depth. Willy could stand (or sit up?) proudly in the company of Winn Dixie. A charmer.
How to Steal a Dog is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.