Dogs and Diamonds and Thievery

If I had to guess, I’d guess that Barbara O’Connor’s most successful book to date is How to Steal a Dog.  I’ve read many of her other novels, including her most recent, The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester, but I’ve avoided this title, though it has maintained steady popularity in my classroom for the past few years.  My shameful secret is that I like to pretend I don’t like animal-centric books.  But I really do.  And really, How to Steal a Dog is not about the dog at all, but is another example of what I think O’Connor does best–she writes these first person narratives in a voice that is so purely child-like, and believably so.  Georgina, the main character, doesn’t seem filtered through a grown-up at all, the way most kid lit protagonists seem.  That is classic O’Connor.  Georgina is a kid in a tough situation, living in a car with her mom and kid brother, who comes up with what would seem like a very logical solution to their money problems–she decides to steal a dog from a rich person, then collect the big reward she is sure they will offer.  Things certainly don’t work out as she initially envisions, but her choices all along the way rang true for me as a reader, and reminded me of the best crazy plans of my own childhood.  What sets this story apart from O’Connor’s other work is her treatment of Georgina’s homelessness.  The story never gets preachy, never tries to “educate” the reader on the topic, but as the lives of the characters unfold, from washing up in gas station restrooms to brushing their teeth with water from the cooler they keep in their car, the tragedy of homelessness is revealed.  Through young Georgina’s eyes, this revelation is at an understandable level for the elementary school reader.  As I was reading, I anticipated some great book club or reading conference conversations surrounding this book.  Georgina plans to steal a dog to help her family afford a place to live.  Is this the right thing to do?  What happens when circumstances force us to consider desperate, even illegal, measures?  I love it when stories challenge readers’ value systems just a bit, and I think some great conversations will come out of this novel in my classroom.

A year or so ago I saw a recommendation for the novel Masterpiece by Elise Broach and ended up reading it aloud to my class.  It was a big hit, with some mystery, adventure, and unlikely friendship all mixed together.  So I’m happy to have finally read another book by Broach, called Shakespeare’s Secret, which also had an engaging combination of mystery, adventure, and unlikely friendship.  The story’s main character is named Hero (after the character in Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare) and she finds a mystery waiting for her in the new house her family has moved into.  Hero ends up entangled in an insurance fraud, finding a “stolen” antique diamond, and uniting some unlikely relatives along the road to (maybe!) revealing the secret identity of William Shakespeare.  Her elderly neighbor and the most popular boy in eighth grade become her fellow investigators and friends as the story progresses, and I found myself reading the novel in one sitting so that I could reach the end.  While I was reading, a particular plot twist was revealed to me, the reader, but not to any of the characters.  I loved this!  I kept anticipating how the secret I now knew would be revealed, and felt even more invested in seeing the story through to its very satisfying resolution.  I often talk with my students about the joys of plot twists, about authors that surprise us, but while I finished Shakespeare’s Secret, I realized I’ve never shared this great fun of reading–when the author brings the reader in on a secret before the characters know.  I won’t forget to share that again, and maybe I’ll even do it with this excellent novel.

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