The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble (2020 CBC shortlisted book)
This 2019 book has been shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council (CBC) for a possible book of the year award, under the “Younger Readers” category. It is also set in a terrifying post-apocalyptic Australia. Some people might feel that those two things don’t go well together. That should be kept in mind, depending on the audience, especially if you’re teaching primary school. If you’re teaching secondary school, go for your life. Get this book into their hands. Chances are, most kids will find this story riveting.
If you’re teaching upper primary, give this one some thought. I’m not inclined to withhold any text, but just use it with caution. The two main characters and their dogs are perpetually in fear for their lives, from any living person they meet. Society has failed. There are multiple attempts on their lives as they traverse Australia. At least one lesser character in the book is murdered, though we do not read an account of it. To help understand where this fits in compared with other texts, Morris Gleitzman’s “Boy Overboard” also presents a few nightmare scenes based on realistic events (think of the near-execution of women in the soccer arena), so if you have used that one, you can use “The Dog Runner”. A major difference is, the writing in “The Dog Runner” is better, and MacDibble gives kids a lot more credit. She doesn’t make her 10-year-old Ella sound naïve. For another comparison: if you have a copy of Hunger Games floating around your classroom, that is likely to be more unsettling to most readers.
In this story, Young Ella and her brother Emery have not seen their mother in nearly a year. While many people are unable to move around their city, she was deemed an “essential” worker to help keep the power supply running. The coincidental timing of this language lends itself to some dark connections to present day events. There is no pandemic here, but a much of the plant life we depend on is failing to grow, and food shortages have led to anarchy. These two characters have taken their dogs and are headed for a safer spot in rural Australia, where Emery grew up.
While at times it seems dark, young Ella maintains hope throughout. She has an internal struggle, in which she knows the world has changed, but refuses to accept that they can no longer help others, and that they must distrust everyone.
“The Dog Runner” is hard to put down. In each step, kids are likely to find that they must keep reading to find what happens next. MacDibble sets up the suspense well, even when you know what is coming. This is likely to have a wide audience.
How can I use this with students?
Student to student conversations in literature circles could never be boring when discussing this one. Whatever prompts they are using to discuss texts generally, there are a number of other discussion points you may want to have added to the conversation. Here are a few possibilities:
Analysing character traits. Because 10-year-old Ella changes throughout the story, this discussion point can be used throughout the book. There will be numerous things she says, thinks and does that give you an idea of how she is changing (fair game in the Victorian Curriculum, from Level 4 onwards).
Ongoing comparison to other texts. If students have been set up with other texts, they will be able to make some connections that allow for better critiquing and analysis of this book. “The Lake at the End of the World” (Caroline Macdonald) is also set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. This was a CBC Honour book back in 1989, but at the time this landed in the “Older Readers” category, despite being far less terrifying.
“Boy Overboard” was mentioned earlier, and is far more likely to be available in any school. Also by Morris Gleitzman, “Once” and “Then” lend themselves to comparison. While the subject matter is very different, there we have similarly aged main characters on the run, with the author trying to build suspense.
Analysing description. You may also want to use this text to analyse description, for Writing or Reading. There are many passages throughout, that would lend themselves to some close reading. MacDibble adds enough detail to help you visualise greater detail. There will be lots of examples where noun groups are expanded, or adverb groups are expanded, through an embedded clause in the middle of a sentence. If you read some of these sentences with and without that embedded clause, it’s easy to visualise how much the added description helps (addresses Vic Curriculum, Level 5 Writing – adverb groups/phrases, Level 4 Writing – noun groups/phrases). If you have a copy, they’ll be easy to find. There might be an example in every chapter. Here’s a few:
Page 32: “…I stand then, staying bent so low I’m still lower than the bushes, coz now I’m worried that the park is full of strange men….”. Reading it with or without the extra adverbial phrase in the middle can show how this helps the writing.
Page 143 (twice in one sentence): “Halfway up, bouncing and sliding on the uneven ground, grating between the rocks, we see them.”
Lead them to some examples. Get them to identify more, and talk about what this adds.
Some other discussion points along the way:
Macdibble is clearly acknowledging the land management practices Australia’s traditional land-owners. That message comes through later in the book. Students may not pick this up, you may want to draw their attention to it. The message becomes more obvious as the story nears an end.
Also, there is a recurring phrase about learning to “walk on your head”, a phrase used by Ella’s father. Macdibble uses it again and again. This lends itself to a conversation about why she is going this. Their interpretation may change throughout the book.