War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus (Selbert, 2013) has a lot of potential for teaching in grades 4-5 with students studying World War II. While this book is listed for grades 2-5, I think it would be hard for 2nd and even 3rd grade students to understand the main ideas. For all readers, the author assumes some background knowledge about WWII–the conflict, the players, and the geography.
For 4th-5th grade students, this would be a good opportunity for partner reading or for a teacher read aloud with a focus on text-dependent questions like, “How does the author develop the idea that Churchill and Rufus are ‘war dogs’?” (CCSS RI 8 & L5). Selbert, the author, positions Churchill as “dog-like” at many points in the book–some more explicitly than others. For example, there’s a page that describes Churchill speaking to Parliament – “Winston, his shoulders set like a tenacious bulldog’s, wades to the front of the hall and begins to speak.” On another page, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, visits him and Rufus in a war bunker where Churchill’s office was during the war; the text states that she holds her husband’s hand and then kisses his cheek and, on the same page, she holds Rufus and “rubs behind his ears until he falls asleep.” Clementine is showing affection for both war dogs in a sense – Churchill and Rufus.
Selbert also includes quotes from Churchill that are critical in understanding the brevity of the war and even the ideas in the text. (FYI-Most of the quotes would be conceptually difficult for 2nd or early 3rd grade students.) The quotes are separate from the running text–see image below–and could be read carefully and discussed further after reading the whole book. A question for students to consider might be, “Why is this particular quote relevant in this part of the book?” (CCSS RI 4 & 5, L5)
Students should have the opportunity to read and reread additional features the author includes at the end of the book–a timeline of WWII, a short essay about Churchill and his beloved pets, and another short essay about Churchill himself. In the intermediate grades, a teacher might read aloud the book and then engage the students in close reading of one of the two essays for the author’s main idea or in response to prompts like, “How would you describe Churchill based on your reading of this essay? Why? What parts of the text made you think so?” or “Churchill was an important figure in WWII. Identify and explain evidence in the text that supports this idea.” (CCSS RI 1 & 2).
A strong book introduction should emphasize the meaning of the title or a short discussion predicting the meaning behind the title. I didn’t pay much attention to the title, assumed I knew what I was going to read about – Churchill’s dog—and then as I read, felt like I wasn’t learning much about Rufus. When I rethought the title – War Dogs (plural), the book made more sense to me. My point is that students shouldn’t assume the book will be mostly about Rufus–actually it’s more about Churchill and his role in WWII. Rufus, a dog, is an access point for more important content.
This book was awarded the International Literacy Association Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for primary nonfiction 2014 which is awarded to new authors. I am going to be on this committee this next year – looking forward to it!