One of my favorite student stories featured a character whose beloved pet was a horribly behaved dinosaur—definitely on the T. rex rather than the Barney end of the dinosaur socialization spectrum. As the conclusion of the story, the character says: “But it doesn’t matter if my dinosaur is naughty all nine days a week. I love him anyway. Because he is my dinosaur.”
I’m moved by what that conclusion says about the unconditional love that young writer was obviously receiving from somebody important to him. But it’s also a great reminder that there are some basic story lines that rarely fail to provide excellent starting points for struggling young writers. Ask a young author, “What pet do you really wish you could have, and can you think of how to turn that into a story?”—and most kids are on a roll.
In fact, the hankering for pets (even those less exotic than a dinosaur) has proved golden for established writers too. From my picture book shelf alone I can pull out Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets, Karen Kaufman’s I Wanna Iquana, Cathleen Daly’s Prudence Wants a Pet (at one point poor Prudence has to settle for a branch), and David LaRochelle’s The Best Pet of All.
My collection, and the many other titles that would fit into it, can lead to another fruitful conversation with young writers, this time about writer’s voice. The books are all funny, so as example texts, they work well for students beyond the picture book stage. They’re all quick reads, so it’s easy to compare/contrast them in a classroom setting, focusing on the fact that despite similar story concepts, each writer brings their own personality to the tales and makes them different reading experiences (my core definition of writer’s voice).
The Best Pet of All, incidentally, is also my go-to example of how to structure a basic but clever plot—it features a character with an initial problem that morphs and twists into new problems as the story moves forward, but then is finally resolved in a satisfying yet surprising way. All in just a few hundred words!
In other words, a warning: be careful, or books about pets may become your teacher’s pets.