06 April 2007

Chapter Book Ripped from the Headlines

Many newspapers around the world are carrying the news that a single gene, turned on or off, seems to be responsible for some dog breeds being very large, others small.

The survival of that gene means that both its forms have evolutionary advantages for dogs that didn't exist for wolves. (Those ancestors of dogs are all pretty much the same size, like most species.) And since humans have bred dogs for 10,000-15,000 years, that advantage probably has something to do with what dogs could do for us.

Which leads me to this plot for a middle-grade novel:

Gara, a nine-year-old girl, helps to find the clan's top housewolf, Shona, after she has trotted away from the clanhouse to give birth. Among the pups in Shona's litter is one much smaller than the rest. To Gara's eyes, this little pup is just as energetic as the others, so she finds him a teat for nursing. Gara's siblings and cousins say she shouldn't have done that, but she refuses to listen and impulsively names the pup Runt.

Gara's mother, Bista, already has her hands full caring for a large field of grain and convincing the clan to stick to her plan to live near that patch for a whole season instead of moving on. Bista has insisted that this grain-gathering strategy will help the clan live out the lean parts of the year. She is pleased that Gara has helped find Shona, who helps guard the clan while the hunters are away, but isn't excited about Runt.

Gara's father, Truff, returns from the hunt, in a good mood because the men have downed a small, old antelope as well as the usual rodents and lizards. He tells Gara she can keep looking after Runt, and she's delighted. But the next day Gara overhears Truff telling his second wife, Lavla, why: if Runt grows as big as the other pups, he could be a good huntwolf or housewolf. If not, the clan can eat him in the winter.

Gara hustles to get Runt more food than the other pups so he'll grow faster. But although the pup shows hunting instincts and a lot of vigor, he remains small. Meanwhile, she has chores to do for her mother. Sometimes Runt helps, as in scaring birds away from the grain field. But sometimes he gets in the way, as when she and all the clan children are set to weaving sacks.

As the days grow shorter and colder, Bista announces that the grain is ready for harvest. All the women and children of the clan set to work gathering the crop, sifting and hulling the seeds into the sacks. The clan ends up with more grain than they have ever known. Many of the women congratulate Bista on her foresight, and she looks forward to Truff's next return.

But the following morning, Gara discovers holes in two of the sacks: rodents have chewed through the weaving in the night, stealing and ruining some of the grain supply. Bista repairs the damage as well as she can. That night she makes Shona the housewolf and her larger pups sleep near the sacks. Gara takes Runt to her mat so he won't feel lonely.

The clan awakes to furious barking. In the dim light of a crescent moon, they see the big pups dashing off, clumsily snapping at quick-moving shapes on the ground. But now the grain is unguarded, and more rodents arrive to gnaw through the sacks.

Bista and Lavla argue about retrieving the housewolves or lighting a fire to scare away the rodents. Gara feels Runt scramble out of her arms. He rushes toward the grain sacks and springs onto a small shadow beside one of them. Then he trots into the moonlight, deposits a dead rodent at Gara's feet, and dashes back. By the end of the night, when Shona and the rest of her pups return to the clanhouse, Runt has killed five rodents and scared off the rest.

The next afternoon, Truff and the hunters arrive home, only three lizards and a hedgehog to show for their work. Truff insists that it's time for the clan to move on to better hunting grounds. He's pleased to see Bista's grain supply, though worried about how to transport it. Bista shows how the larger dogs can drag it behind them on sticks. Truff agrees, then says that since Runt's too small for that task, it's time to kill him for food.

No! says Gara, coming back from the cookfire. She shows her father the rodents that Runt has killed, now nicely roasted. She points out how fast little dogs are good at protecting the grain in the clanhouse--and they can even bring in meat, too.

The next day, Gara's clan sets out to the south with Runt proudly trotting and dashing around the line of dogs dragging the grain sacks. And we all learn a valuable lesson about life.
Of course, the illustrations would have to show Gara and all her clan in the nude. You think that might be a problem?

copyright (c) 2007 by J. L. Bell

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