01 July 2009

The First Dog - by Jan Brett

I blame Red Riding Hood. Or The Three Pigs. Or possibly the Boy Who Cried Wolf. One way or another, wolves entered and then colonised my nightmares as a child. Yet their doggy descendents are among the animals with whom we have the closest relationships – everything from working cattle dogs to pampered poodles are descended from prehistoric wolves.

I’ve always wondered about how wolves and humans ever found the courage to take the first, fraught, faltering steps towards trusting each other, many millennia ago. This story tells a compelling version of that encounter in the Pleistocene between one hungry wolf and one vulnerable young boy.

It’s illustrated in a textured style that evokes stone-age art materials: wood, rocks, fur, skins and animal bones. Many pages have a satisfying complexity with glacial moraine backdrops and cave art borders. There are clues to each new encounter the children enjoyed spotting ahead of cave-boy Kip. I think a particular strength was the absence of sentimentality in this reconstruction. It was not affection, but necessity that brought them together in a harsher, crueller world.

It also leads me to chuckle that most dogs I know could be justified in sporting a certain smugness; a belief that it is they who successfully domesticated us. We continue our side of the evolutionary bargain (food, shelter) long after we have dispensed with our need for theirs (protection).

Click here to go to a web page with learning activities related to this book.