Cammie McGovern | The Children’s Book Review | April 7, 2017
Writing a Book from a Beloved Dog’s Point of View
Believing we know what our animals are thinking (and talking “for them”) is such a huge part of pet ownership in our family that I assumed writing a book from a beloved dog’s point of view would be easy. It turns out it wasn’t.
In the beginning, I struggled with capturing the pure, unjudging innocence of a dog meeting a child who is very different for the first time. (Gus has autism, as my son does, and is mostly non-verbal.) If a dog doesn’t know other children well how can he describe how unusual this one is? I discovered it’s tricky. I also stumbled over myself deciding how much vocabulary and insight a dog might have to describe the complicated situation he’s in, watching Gus’ parents fight to get the school to recognize their son’s potential and—even more difficult—battle his autism so that he might communicate better and show the world what he’s capable of.
The beloved adult novel, The Art of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein features Enzo, a philosophical dog narrator, so articulate that he might initially strain some reader’s credulity until he pulls them in with the heartbreaking story Enzo is watching unfold in his family. Re-reading this book reminded me of an essential aspect to our relationships with our beloved pets: they bear witness to us at our shining, best moments and also at our weakest, worst ones. No one keeps a secret from a pet, nor can we hide our most private selves, our over reactions, our sadness, our anger.
I believe sensitive dogs (like Chester) intuit all this and respond the best and only way they know how—with love and reassurance. This is who you are. I see it and I love you anyway.
Figuring out how a dog might view Gus’ situation forced me to think more about the conflict itself. As any parent of a child with autism will tell you, there’s a long period early in your child’s life where you fight the disorder that has “taken your child.” You battle his compulsions and force your child to do what comes hardest—communicate, comply, leave his world to join yours. It’s a necessary but heartbreaking process and in almost all cases that I know, ends in a truce. The child meets the parents halfway—better than he was, more available, more communicative, but still fundamentally autistic, still to some extent, living in his own world. Which means for every parent, there comes a point in time when you simply must stop fighting the disorder and accept the child.
For me, watching our dog adore and accept every aspect of my son, helped. A lot. I wanted Chester to sympathize with Gus’ parents and understand why they were demanding that Gus do things he resisted while also battling the school, but I also wanted his deepest alliance to be with Gus, the person who needs him most. Watching service dogs in action opened my eyes to their extraordinarily fierce loyalty. Driven by simple goal I will do anything that my person needs. they are capable of remarkably complex actions which is what Chester must do to truly help Gus in the ways that he needs most. To thread this tricky narrative needle, I returned to one of my all-time favorites, the classic The One and Only Ivan, and marveled at how Katherine Applegate creates an animal narrator who manages, in breathtakingly simple language, to describe the indescribable—the horror of his captivity. By focusing on the heartbreaking details, we see how an ostensibly simple mind is capable of an extraordinary act of complicated bravery, achieved on behalf of Ruby, his elephant friend. His urge to help and to protect is greater than his fear or his certainty that he can do neither.
Maybe this is another thing I’ve learned from the animals I’ve loved: we can all surprise ourselves. We can all surpass our limitations. Ultimately I believe my son has, but it was a lesson that took years to realize and a dog along the way to help point it out.
Written by Cammie McGovern
Publisher’s Synopsis: Critically acclaimed author Cammie McGovern presents a heartwarming and humorous middle grade novel about the remarkable bond that forms between an aspiring service dog and an autistic boy in need of a friend. “Joyful, inspiring, and completely winning, Chester and Gus is unforgettable,” proclaimed Katherine Applegate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Newbery Medal winner The One and Only Ivan.
Chester has always wanted to become a service dog. When he fails his certification test, though, it seems like that dream will never come true—until a family adopts him. They want him to be a companion for their ten-year-old son, Gus, who has autism. But Gus acts so differently than anyone Chester has ever met. He never wants to pet Chester, and sometimes he doesn’t even want Chester in the room. Chester’s not sure how to help Gus since this isn’t exactly the job he trained for—but he’s determined to figure it out. Because after all, Gus is now his person.
In the spirit of beloved classics like Because of Winn-Dixie, Shiloh, and Old Yeller, Cammie McGovern’s heartfelt novel—told from Chester’s point of view—explores the extraordinary friendship between a child and a dog with a poignant and modern twist.
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: HarperCollins | April 4, 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-0062330680
About Cammie McGovern
Cammie McGovern is the author of the middle grade novels Just My Luck and Chester and Gus as well as the teen novels Say What You Will and A Step Toward Falling. Cammie is also one of the founders of Whole Children, a resource center that runs after-school classes and programs for children with special needs. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children.
The article Channelling an Animal’s Point of View was written by Cammie McGovern, author of Chester and Gus. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Art Of Writing, Autism, Cammie McGovern, and Dogs.