The Dogs of Winter
By Bobbie Pyron
312 pages, middle grade
Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic) 2012
When Ivan’s mother disappears, he ends up on the streets of Moscow. It’s winter – deep, dark, bitter cold – and all he’s got to keep him warm is his coat, a hat, his Famous Basketball Player shoes, and the memory of his mother.
Ivan falls in with a tribe of street children and is put to stealing and begging by the gang’s leader. It’s a harsh life, made worse by the cruelty humans inflict on each other. The dogs treat each other better, Ivan thinks. So when a twist of fate lands him in the middle of the dog pack, he becomes one of them. For two years he and his adopted canine family roam the landscape, using their wits to find food and shelter.
Ivan and his pack discover a greenhouse that makes a perfect winter home. In the summer they run through the forest, hunting or, when needed, collecting food from the dumpster behind an amusement park.
This is a story of survival. It’s a story that examines the things that make us human. It’s also based on a true story, and masterfully written by Bobbie Pyron who, it just happens, lives with her own pack of dogs. Bobbie was gracious enough to answer Three Questions:
Sally’s Bookshelf: So, Bobbie, how did you come to write this book?
Bobbie: In 2005, I read an article in Best Friends magazine. (Best Friends is a huge, no-kill animal sanctuary in southern Utah). The article was about feral children – children who supposedly have been raised by animals. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea, possibly because I’ve always felt more canine than primate. That article, Bobbie explains, opened with the story of a four-year-old Russian boy, Ivan Mishukov…. The boy who becomes the main character in Dogs of Winter.
Bobbie: I was absolutely riveted by his story and found myself wanting to know more. Why were there tens of thousands of children living homeless on the streets, particularly one as young as four? How did Ivan survive the cold and the lack of food? How did he and the dogs live day to day? And what happened to Ivan after he was taken from the dogs two years later? The more I thought about Ivan’s story with the dogs, the more I felt I had to write it, but as fiction.
SB: It looks like you did a tremendous amount of research – there’s a 3-page bibliography at the end of the book. And the details are so vivid. Did you travel to Russia to visit the places you wrote about?
Bobbie: I’m a librarian, so research is in my blood and bones. First, I started searching on line for anything I could find on Ivan Mishukov. I also realized I need to know more about the socio-economic conditions in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union – I needed to understand why there were, by some estimates, close to a million homeless children and teens living on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And of course, there were the street dogs of Moscow. How did they live? Again, there was a surprising amount of information on that, even YouTube videos showing them using the subway system! But I never did visit Russia, and that made me very nervous because “place” is very important to me when I write. I was also very fortunate to come across an award-winning documentary, The Children of Leningratsky made around 2003, which followed a group of homeless children in Moscow over a year.
SB: You have a soft spot in your heart for dogs, and in your blog when you do author interviews, you focus on their relationship to their dogs. Tell me about this connection - how it connects with your life.
Bobbie: I was born and raised in the South, and we southerners have very strong connections to our dogs. Dogs were always a part of everything my family did, and as a shy child, my best friends were dogs. That is still true today. (Bobbie has three dogs: two rescued Shetland Sheepdogs and a rescued coyote mix) I love how “in the moment” they are; I love watching the dynamics between them. I love just being in the company of dogs. They offer us trust, unconditional love, and a guilelessness that is in short supply these days. They have a way of bringing out the best in us, perhaps because we want to be the person they trust that we are. I think that’s why the authors I interview – many of whom don’t usually do interviews – love the chance to just talk about their dogs.
This is part of the Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday round-up. Check out more great reading here. Review copy from publisher.