Smells Like Dog

Believe it or not, this is the title of the current YA novel I am reading on my own, just for fun. I bought it at the Scholastic Book fair at school back in the fall, and the primary motivation for this purchase was the book cover, because it showed a Basset Hound. Intrigued, I read the back cover and figured that it was worth the $5.99. The main character is a 12-year-old would-be treasure hunter named Homer Pudding, who is chubby and friendless. His dad wants him to become a goat farmer (they live on a farm), but his mom understands his need to pursue his dreams. The inspiration for becoming an adventurer comes from his Uncle Drake, who dies unexpectedly at the beginning of the book… and leaves Homer with his Basset Hound. The family, at a loss for what to do with a dog so unlike their border collies, names him Dog. As expected, Homer and Dog, both outsiders, grow to be close companions.

I am thoroughly enjoying this book because the characters are so terribly charming and because the author completely nails the personality of a Basset Hound. It is absolutely spot-on, so I think of Sounder all the time when I’m reading it. In fact, Husband even let me read some of the book to him on Saturday after I convinced him that he would love the descriptions of the dog.

What I’ve been thinking about while I read this book is all of the kids who are struggling readers. Schools are so worried about making sure that every student is reading, and reading on or above grade level at that. While this is valid and important to the future success of students, it isn’t that simple. Schools seems to think that if they only teach reading and math, then kids will excel in reading and math. But that logic is flawed, in my opinion and experience. Kids eventually learn to read, even on a basic phonics level. But if they have no outside reference points or prior knowledge — say from music, sports, science, social studies, and any other school subject that isn’t reading or math — how can those words make sense on a comprehension level or beyond? If Smells Like Dog was about some rare dog breed that I didn’t know, I wouldn’t think it was nearly as funny because I wouldn’t have as many visuals going on in my mind while reading. I could absolutely smoothly read aloud a complicated book about math theory, but my comprehension level would be much weaker because the highest math I’ve taken is college calculus. My point is that part of our job in schools is to build up students’ prior knowledge so that their reading makes more sense; reading is so much more than just pronouncing words out loud correctly.

In my dream school, where every student is engaged, teachers create wonderfully rich learning environments, where subjects constantly speak back and forth to each other. I LOVED teaching American Lit because the U.S. History teachers were excellent partners in building context around our texts. You’re reading The Crucible? Let’s talk witch hunts and McCarthyism. Great Gatsby? 1920s and the Jazz Era. And on and on. I think that blending can and should happen much earlier in schools, and I know that our kids will benefit. Our brains were made to make connections.

As for my book, Smells Like Dog, one of my first thoughts when I even looked at it was of a Basset owner  who said that Bassets smell like corn chips. I couldn’t agree more, and I was happy to make that connection. Score another point for prior knowledge.

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