Writing is hard. Writing a book is very hard. Writing a good book is very, very hard, and often requires a diligent editor, a dedicated agent, years of revisions, a high-functioning writers’ group, a bit of talent, a lot of coffee and an understanding family. Even then, a good book is not the guaranteed outcome.
I rarely write negative book reviews, and it is particularly difficult to write a bad review for an ARC (or Advance Review Copy) that was so graciously extended to me by the author and/or publisher. However, I think feedback is always important, and potential readers should have information from a variety of viewpoints.
Jimmy Wayne, author of “Ruby the Foster Dog”, has a good heart and an interesting story to tell. A former foster child, he is also a country music artist, and has written (or co-written) two other books. In an effort to raise awareness about the struggles faced by kids who age-out of the foster care system, he embarked on a walk halfway across America in 2010. “Ruby” is his semi-autobiographical account of this event, written specifically for children.
The illustrations in the galley copy that I received were detailed and beautiful, full of action and emotion. With a few more pictures, you might not even need the words to tell the story (and in this case, it would be an improvement).
I was interested in the story for many reasons: I am a foster parent for my local Humane Society, several of my family members have cared for (and even adopted) foster children, and the connection between children and animals has been proven to be very healing. Unfortunately, none of these points were included or addressed in the book.
“Ruby” is written as a first-person narrative, from Ruby’s point of view. Ruby begins her story at a shelter in Texas, which is described more as an abusive warehouse than a safe refuge for animals. Eventually, just before her approaching euthanasia date, Ruby is adopted by a man she calls “Mr. James” (also known as Jimmy Wayne). He is (of course) walking halfway across America to raise awareness about the plight of foster children, and she joins him (mainly tucked inside his coat) as he reaches his goal. By the time they reach Mr. James’ home, they are both popular stars, and continue to use their notoriety to support their cause.
The writing, sadly, seems a little herky-jerky, and consistency was a big problem throughout the book. For example, early in the story, as Mr. James is finishing the paperwork to adopt Ruby, he speaks with a shelter employee: “The employee’s face fell, as if he had a bad memory of being hopeless too. I wondered if everyone knew what that word felt like. Lots of people knew what it meant, but not everyone know what it feels like.” Nit-picky? Maybe. But this kind of issue, of conflicting thoughts and inconsistent ideas, runs rampant throughout “Ruby”.
With a dog for a narrator, I should maybe not have been surprised when Mr. James begins to not only understand what Ruby is saying, but also converse with her. Very literally. They go on and on -- talking about the mundane (food, friends, the road), having deep philosophical exchanges, and discussing various Bible verses and stories. Sometimes it seems that Ruby has a good grasp on everything they are talking about, and other times she “speaks” and reacts as if each detail was completely foreign. Eventually, Ruby even begins conversing with people they meet on the road, like it happens every day.
As I read, I kept waiting to find out what the title meant, because Mr. James adopted Ruby, and she was not a foster dog. Again, there was a passage that seemed to spell it out, but again with the contradictions: Mr. James tells Ruby that when he adopted her, she also (in a way) adopted him. Ruby goes on to tell Mr. James, “’Although you don’t look like a normal foster parent, you are the perfect foster parent for me.’” And other than Mr. James, who is an adult by this point, there are no foster children represented in the story, unfortunately. When the title so blatantly does not fit the book, it’s a big problem for me.
There is also a lot of what appears to be product placement throughout the book – the sporting goods company (who sponsored part of his walk) Marmot, and Southwest Airlines (who evidently donated a flight for Mr. James), to name a couple. Example passage: “’Well, Ruby, Southwest Airlines is the most loveable airline and you are the most loveable dog on the planet.’” It is a little annoying, and not really appropriate for a book geared towards kids.
I think it is important to specifically note that this is a Christian-centered story. Beyond the fact that there are many references to biblical passages and Christian morals, there are passages like this one: “’Stella’s mom is single, isn’t she?’ I wiggled my eyebrows. The new guy looked back and forth between me and Mr. James. I would have to fill him in later. ‘Yes. She’s also beautiful. And most important, she’s a Christian.’” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to know, as it sometimes feels slightly exclusionary.
“Ruby” is supposed to be geared toward kids who are between 4- and 10-years old, but that is a very wide range for a fairly wordy book. Kids who range from 4- to 6- or 7-years old are still often learning the difference between reality and fiction, and the real message of the book may be lost on many of them. For a story with such a true and very real issue at its center (the foster care system), introducing this strange talking-dog element as its delivery system kind of undermines its importance.
“Ruby the Foster Dog” has great heart, but it is buried underneath so many problems that I really could not recommend it to anyone.