I never owned this book, which sadly was impossible to find in any bookstores even though it once appeared on Playschool, to my incredible delight, and was seemingly quite popular. I would get to read it, however, when my brother and I were babysat by the local library while Mum would grocery shop next door. Toby was always my first pick, and although I’m not sure if I can claim it as my favourite childhood book, it is the book that touched me the most (on a much deeper level than the mishaps of Grug and There’s a Hippopotamus on My Roof Eating Cake).
This realistically illustrated picture book has quite overwhelming themes, which have resonated with me since the first time I read it at around six years old.
Toby is about a beloved family dog; a beautiful golden retriever in his old age who is weakening and reaching the end of his life. The book explores how this inevitable loss is dealt with by each member of the family, but in particular, 12-year-old Sara. Sara is the oldest sibling, who has grown and shared an indescribable bond with her pet. The watercolour illustrations take us through a timeline of images following both Toby and Sara living, playing and reaching milestones together. They were seemingly the loves of each other’s lives and completely inseparable.
In the present day, though, she is now a peaking teenager and full of fear and confusion, as anyone was in pre-pubescent time. Toby is now fourteen, listless, slow and ‘smelly’. Sara deals with the change in her old best friend with complete resent and neglect. She scolds him, signals him away and complains about him when he is near. Toby’s sorrowful expression shows he very much yearns for her long lost affection. The illustrations manage to capture emotion so incredibly well (Toby’s despair and Sara’s rage) that it’s almost painful to see.
Her younger brothers who continue to love, care and play with old Toby become angry with her Sara’s horrible attitude and struggle to understand the changes Sara is experiencing and how she could suddenly hate their beautiful dog. Their mother explains to her brothers that deep down Sara is upset because her life is changing and she is fearful Toby is getting older.
As Toby grows weaker, a vet tells their mother that it would be ‘kindest to put him to sleep’, and she sadly makes the decision to do this the following day. When Sara hears the news, she again reacts in anger, screaming ‘GOOD!’ before storming up to her bedroom and slamming the door behind her.
During the final night of Toby’s life, while he is tucked up warmly in a patchwork blanket on the lounge room floor, the young brothers creep downstairs to be with him. When they reach the bottom of the stairs however, they find Sara, holding her Toby closely, saying to him her deepest apologies and most loving goodbyes.
A child will put this book down after their first read and hate Sara for her mistreatment of Toby, agreeing with her brothers over her callousness. However, the more times this book is read the more they will understand Sara, the layers of human emotion, and different forms of coping mechanisms. The young reader learns to asses what is truly within other than what is shown externally. The reader learns the lesson that there is always a story behind an angry persona.
Although the strong themes of love and friendship paired with grief and the pains of growing up could be overwhelming for a young child, I still strongly recommend it to children aged six and above. Young children of my generation were so early hit with themes of death, loss and tragedy in all of our favourite childhood stories (The Lion King, Bambi, Charlotte’s Web to name some of many). As confronting as they were, through them I learnt of love, loss and grieving and how important it is to appreciate loved ones.
The final image of Sara holding a peaceful looking Toby is heartbreakingly beautiful and one that I have struggled to get out of my head since my first read. After growing up with a beautiful golden retriever myself and losing him when I was 11, this book still leaves me a blubbering mess, as it would any other animal lover, I’m sure.
This September, we’ve asked eight writers to revisit their favourite books from childhood for our new series, When I was young.