Calling all dog lovers! Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant is not to be skipped over! If you have ever loved a dog, you will surely be touched by this story. As a dog lover myself, I cannot say enough positive things about this book. This book is about the Dog Heaven that all dogs are fortunate enough to visit when they leave our world.
First of all, let me discuss the illustrations with you. They were painted using acrylics by Rylant herself and they are clearly directed toward her child audience. The contrast in colors is bight and drastic which really makes the pages come to life. The landscapes, people, and even animals are drawn as if a child had drawn them. That makes complete sense to me. Shouldn’t a real children’s book have illustrations that are (or look like they are) drawn by children? They are simple by design with a touch of complexity. Speaking from a personal standpoint, these may be my favorite illustrations in any children’s book, ever. Dare I say that?
Now, on to the story. This book is clearly religious as Rylant mentions not only heaven but also God and angels. I could see this book being seen as controversial not only because of its religious connotations but because of its lack of multicultural characters. It is important to note, however, that a few of the angels are different ethnicities if you look closely enough. Despite these controversial aspects, this book still delivers a strong message. Rylant goes into detail about all of the things dogs have and get to do in Dog Heaven including fields to run in, wide lakes with geese, children to play with, and hilariously shaped dog biscuits. She has clearly thought of every single aspect of Heaven that a child would wonder about: Can my dog sleep? (Yes, on clouds). Can my dog visit me? (Yes, with angels). Does my dog have a bowl? (Yes, with their name on it). I think it is imperative to mention how Rylant illustrated God and the angels. God is an ordinary, cowboy-inspired, Caucasian man with a white mustache, yellow pants and a blue shirt. My first thought was, why would she depict God as such a regular person? Then I remembered that this is a children’s book. Perhaps Rylant wanted to ease children into the idea of Heaven and expose them to a God that did not look so mighty and intimidating. For if God looked like a normal, average man then He would be more accepted by children. Similarly, the angels look like regular, middle aged people that wear pants, shirts, and hats, but with wings. Again, my first thought was, where are the fancy white dresses and halos? But I think Rylant purposefully wanted children to feel comfortable in the Dog Heaven world.
Rylant assures the reader that their dog is not gone forever. “So sometimes an angel will walk a dog back to Earth for a little visit and quietly, invisibly, the dog will sniff about his old back yard, will investigate the cat next door, will follow the child to school, will sit on the front porch and wait for the mail.” Is this not the exact type of comfort a child needs after losing their dog? Sure, it is not true (or is it?), but what harm is Rylant really doing by giving the children hope to cope with their loss? Children need to know that they will see their best friend again and that they are being watched over. “They will be there when old friends show up.” This sentence gives the reader hope and reassurance that they will indeed see their dog again someday. That type of support is all a child needs after the loss of a dog.
I felt at peace while reading this book knowing that my own childhood dog was happily enjoying Dog Heaven. I also felt comfort in knowing my dog that is still alive will someday join him, just as I will. Is it wrong to have childlike hopes and dreams? I don’t think so. From a teacher stand point, I think this text is a wonderful writing resource for lessons on word choice, ideas, and matching text to illustrations. For reading, it would be a good resource for a lesson particularly on comprehension and fluency strategies. But it is important to reflect on if this text would be appropriate for your classroom because of the religious aspects. As long as no one would be offended in the classroom, I recommend this book to children, teachers, and of course, dog lovers.