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First Dog Fala: Elizabeth Van Steenwyk

Nonfiction.monday Book: First Dog Fala
Author: Elizabeth Van Steenwyk
Illustrator: Michael G. Montgomery
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8 

First Dog Fala is a picture book about the beloved dog of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Written by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk and illustrated by Michael G. Montgomery, First Dog Fala is a lovely window into Fala's life with FDR. The book is filled with historical tidbits about FDR and World War II, but these never overwhelm the central emphasis on Fala, a "small black Scottish terrier." Fala was a real-life gift to the president from his cousin in 1940, and remained at FDR's side for the rest of the president's life. Fala was even the subject of a famous Presidential speech.

My favorite passages from the text are these two:

"The puppy wagged his stubby tail. His dark, round eyes gleamed as he licked the president's chin. The president roared with laughter. It was love at first lick." The illustration accompanying this incident shows the dog small and eager, and the president laughing and happy.

"Fala couldn't come since he wouldn't promise to be quiet." (This was after a description of the people attending the broadcast of of one of Roosevelt's "fireside chats".)

First Dog FalaMontgomery's oil on canvas illustrations have an old-fashioned feel, capturing the flavor of the 1940s. This feel is due to both the sepia-toned coloring and to details like clothing and coloring. Through all of the illustrations, Fala takes center stage. He looks bright-eyed and intelligent. After Roosevelt's death, he looks forlorn. Many pages also have small pencil sketches, breaking up the text. The pencil sketches lend additional humor and humanity to Fala.

My only complaint is that I would have liked to see some clarification of what information in the book was based on research, vs. artistic embellishment. The book would have benefited from having a summary of the primary sources the author used to learn about Fala.

That point aside, I loved First Dog Fala. Fala is a historical figure who I never knew existed, but now won't ever forget. I think that kids will like this book, too. It's a bit old-fashioned, but I think that Fala is engaging enough to overcome this hurdle. I can think of more than one young fan of little black dogs who should have a copy. Pair it with Two Bobbies, by Kirby Larson, Mary Nethery and Jean Cassels, and give it to a dog lover for the holidays. Or use it as a book to get elementary school kids interested in presidential history or World War II. 

Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Publication Date: September 1, 2008
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Patchwork of Books, Practically Paradise (this review includes lots of great links to more information about Fala), 5 Minutes for Books, Abby (the) Librarian

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.