4 June 2011 THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF BALTO by Meghan McCarthy, Knopf, August 2011, 40p., ISBN: 978-0-375-84460-7
THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF BALTO is the picturebook true story of a sled dog from Alaska who became amazingly famous; was soon thereafter forgotten and neglected; and was later rediscovered and saved from further neglect and mistreatment thanks to a public fundraising campaign.
Balto was the lead dog on a dogsled team that was instrumental in saving lives in 1925, when a shipment of medicine was desperately needed in blizzard-bound Nome, Alaska to combat a deadly epidemic of diphtheria. With no alternative method of delivery available in those days, Balto led the team of dogs and their owner for many miles through deep, blinding snow to successfully deliver the medicine.
This made Balto famous. He modeled for a statue that still stands in New York City's Central Park, and he was the four-legged star of a silent movie. But then the dogs were sold, first to an owner who presented them in a vaudeville show and, then, to another owner who ran a sideshow and didn't treat them well. Things again turned around for Balto and his teammates when a Cleveland businessman successfully spearheaded a public campaign to buy the dogs and move them to where they would be provided better care.
The danger and daring nature of Balto's historic feat make this an exciting story. Meghan McCarthy has a very recognizable and kid-friendly illustration style that makes this story really fun. Together, these qualities, by themselves, make this a must-have book.
But this is just the beginning of why I choose to write about THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF BALTO.
It was Balto's feat and fame that inspired the present-day Iditarod --promoted as "The Last Great Race on Earth" -- in which dogsled teams cover 1,150 miles of Alaskan trails over a couple of weeks. Part of the Iditarod race covers the same trails that Balto followed. So this book provides a connection to my beloved buddy Gary Paulsen, the award-winning author who has run the Iditarod several times.
I've heard plenty of times over the course of my life that we live in a throw-away society. Some try to make it sound as though things were better in the "old days." But it takes just a little bit of studying history to realize that this is not true. Just as we see Balto being "thrown away" once his 15 minutes of fame has passed, we as a society seem to have always thrown away people (and principles) just as easily as we throw away an outgrown frock or toy.
Over the past 78 years, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President the same year that Balto died, and -- at the insistence of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins -- began setting up a societal safety net for the poor and elderly and unemployed, there has been an ever-present tension between two opposing forces in our country. On one side are those who support the use of public monies for helping others who are old or poor or under-educated and those who, to quote my hero Mario Cuomo, "believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail."
And so I am also a big fan of THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF BALTO because I believe this true story about caring for others will help develop empathy in impressionable young people who don't always get the best modeling in this regard.
Finally, I love this book because I have always been fascinated by history and by change. Ever since my eighth grade American history teacher shared her first-hand experience about daily life in America during World War II -- the shortages and the rationing coupons and the recycling and the blackouts -- I have never gotten enough of looking at the similarities and differences between Then and Now. And so, I figure that there are plenty of kids out there that will get a kick out of how things were different eighty-five years ago. Just like I do.
Richie Partington, MLIS
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