“Sad, the Dog” is a picture book written by Sandy Fussell and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit. It’s a book that will touch the heart of even the most jaded reader. Like the dog, the story begins “sad,” but contains a wonderful message of compassion and forgiveness.
“Sad, the Dog” tells the story that those who rescue unwanted animals hear daily — the story of an unwanted dog (Sad was “an unwanted Christmas present from a friend”) who lives a life of loneliness. The dog isn’t given a name until he names himself — Sad. And he is sad. When his owners yell at him for singing, for digging, for living. When they call him “Hey, you!” and “Dog.” This is a dog who lives a life of solitude — no one shows him love, no one gives him a pat on the head, no one interacts with him. He lives, sad and alone, in the yard until the day the couple move out with almost all their belongings — except for Sad.
In this story, Sad doesn’t have to wait long for food and water. In real life, some dogs literally starve to death waiting for rescue, but here a new family moves into Sad’s home the next day. A young boy named Jack is delighted to see that a dog comes with the house.
The author does something special at this point. She doesn’t sugarcoat the effect that a life of trauma and stress might have on a dog. Sad and Jack don’t immediately become best buddies. In real life, a dog who was neglected would be shy around new people — especially children. Sad is afraid and wary of the new boy. He hides behind the garbage can.
But Jack, a compassionate and understanding child, is patient. He gives Sad fresh water. He leaves dog treats on the porch next to a soft bed. And finally, over an irresistible treat of breakfast sausage, Jack and Sad become friends. Sad has a friend, and best of all he gets a new name. The perfect name: Lucky.
Any reader who doesn’t get a tear in his or her eye at the ending of this story doesn’t have a heart.
The story is touching and beautifully written, but the illustrations are also lovely. The watercolor images and details cleverly contrast the horrible cruel visages of the first neglectful owners and Sad’s despair with the final illustrations of a joyful pair — boy and dog — enjoying life together. Suwannakit draws Sad/Lucky as a dog who doesn’t especially resemble any specific breed. He might look a bit like a pit bull which would be perfectly appropriate as that might be the breed of dog most abandoned and left in shelters.
This story is a perfect choice for any school library, preschool or elementary classroom. It’s a perfect choice as well for those doing humane education with children. Even though it’s a picture book, older children will understand the emotional upheaval that Sad/Lucky is going through. They will be able to empathize with how frightened an animal would be after being abandoned. This story could help spark important discussions about abandoned dogs, dogs in shelters, stray dogs, and how to approach them and treat them. In many shelters, dogs are returned quickly after adoption because the adopters didn’t understand how to slowly introduce the new animal into the household. This book is a great tool to teach that concept.
The most difficult part of reading this book to a group of children would be getting through the story without getting choked up over the wonderfully happy ending.
Candlewick Press (2015)