As someone who doesn’t have children, I’m no less resistant than any of my book-loving friends-with-kids to the charm of a beautiful picture book. So when I spotted Laika: Astronaut Dog by writer and illustrator Owen Davey, with its charming retro-style artwork, I immediately had one of those financially unwise ‘maybe I should buy this even though I’m approximately 25 years older than its intended audience and like it too much to give it away as a gift to an age-appropriate recipient’ moments.
This changed when I actually read the book, which – as you might have guessed – tells the ‘true’ story of Laika, a Soviet space dog with the dubious claim to fame of having been the first animal to orbit the earth. Laika’s trip on Sputnik 2 in 1957 didn’t exactly culminate in the same triumph (and, indeed, survival) experienced by her human counterpart Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man to visit space in 1961. Laika, not being human, was considered expendable, and is thought to have died from overheating shortly after Sputnik 2’s launch.
But – spoiler alert – Davey’s rendition of the real Laika’s adventure comes with a rather quaint and fantastical twist. While the remains of the real Laika and her vessel disintegrated in 1958 when they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, Davey’s plucky little space dog is rescued by a loving adoptive family of aliens and given a new home in space; everyone lives happily ever after. Dubious metaphor or troubling fabrication?
There’s a long tradition of picture books that tell true stories, and some feature elements that aren’t especially palatable for younger readers. Notable Australian examples are The Rabbits, written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan, which tells a tale of colonisation from the perspective of the colonised; Took the Children Away, with words by musician Archie Roach and illustrations by Ruby Hunter, which is based on the ARIA Award-winning song of the same name and reveals the plight and injustice of Australia’s Stolen Generations; I Was Only Nineteen by another musician, John Schumann, and illustrated by Craig Smith, is a kids’ version of the author’s classic anthem about the Vietnam War.
Some children’s books find ways to gloss gently over their less-than-happy aspects without actually changing the truth: Marsden’s book, for example, makes Australia’s white colonisers rabbits (albeit not very cute ones, for obvious reasons). Roach’s lyrics are hard-hitting (‘Snatched from their mother’s breast / Said this was for the best’), as are Schumann’s (‘the ANZAC legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears’), but they nonetheless provide the opportunity to discuss and explain important past events to curious young readers.
While picture books can be a wonderful way to teach kids about actual historical events – even if those events aren’t full of rainbows and lollipops – I’m not so sure about this convergence of entertainment and education when it involves the degree of whitewashing evident in Laika. It’s a lovely book and a cute version of events, but it’s not real. That’s not to say it isn’t a delight to look at – simply that any parent choosing to buy it for their children might end up having to answer some tough questions. Of course, any kid whose curiosity is piqued by this dog-in-space yarn can easily find out what really happened – will that be worse than reading about it in storybook form to begin with?
The answer to this question depends on individual readers, but I think there’s also a matter of principle at stake here. Why not write a completely new tale if the real one is going to be hard for young readers to handle? A little sugar-coating usually serves a purpose, but, if you want to retell a true story that you think is too sad for its intended audience, perhaps it’s not the right story to tell – even if you have created the world’s cutest space dog and finally given her the send-off she deserves.