First Dog Fala is a delightful quick read about FDR’s best friend in the White House. Michael G. Montgomery‘s pictures are a treasure. They convey the exuberance and joy of a Scottish terrier who became the president’s greatest companion. Perhaps what I like best is how this title has inspired students to research for my information on Fala. While this title is perfect for elementary students, my middle schoolers discussed this in-depth for over 45 minutes. Good picture books inspire you and First Dog Fala is on our pick list. – these are the words I put on my first JacketFlap review.
Readers, when you read this book, you want more, too, so let’s delve more deeply into First Dog Fala. From the moment I touched the cover, I knew this would be a special book. So few publishers have raised letters or embossing on their covers, but I love it when I feel it. This tells me that the publishers were willing to spend a little more time and money on this title.
Open the cover and Voila! there are illustrations on the endpapers. I gleefully skip around the room. Ten cute, cute, cute sketches of a Scottish terrier being himself. This dog has some personality from the get-go.
A quick check at the half title page (I love to know these terms – it’s a librarian thing), a look at the verso page (sigh! not on the back of the title page, but opposite it) and I find the information I live for – how the illustrations were created (oil on canvas – they didn’t mention the pencils) and even the font typeset (I’m such a booknerd).
Turn the page and instantly I see why my copyright info was moved – the first image of the White House at night with a solitary light burning from the president’s room conveys the loneliness President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt living in the White House with everyone gone at night and Mrs. Roosevelt traveling frequently.
So at night, the president was often alone.
Such sadness, so many shadows, the tone is set for how sad this lonely man was.
Then we turn the page again and find
Happiness! Joy! Is there anything better than a loving dog (especially a Scottish terrier) leaping up to smother you with kisses?
Elizabeth Van Steenwyk writes:
The president roared with laughter. It was love at first lick.
How, you may ask, did I get these delightful images? I pleaded with illustrator Michael G. Montgomery to please allow me to use some of the illustrations from his website. Fortunately these are available on the website as prints, also. (BONUS!)
Michael wrote to me:
I loved this story. I own four dogs and enjoyed working on the illustrations as much as any project I
have ever done. I thought Ms. Van Steenwyck’s retelling was wonderful. A good story always makes my job that much easier.
Thanks, Michael. I did not have an image of my very favorite page in this tale. It’s a simple page describing the president and Fala’s movement through the White House being pushed by his assistant Arthur Prettyman. Michael G. Montogomery has captured a moment in the hallway with Fala barking and riding joyfully on FDR’s lap. Aha! Readers! Here is a glorious moment to emphasize the importance of having background knowledge about a variety of things.
Tell your students that President FDR never allowed himself to be photographed in a wheelchair and lead up to this page by telling them that the artist has captured him in the wheelchair. Read the page while they look on and hope, cross your fingers, and hope, that some observant child looks closely and says,
"But we can’t see President Roosevelt’s face because he’s hidden behind a newspaper that he’s reading."
Aha! Very sneaky Michael G. Montgomery. Making sure FDR’s dignity is maintained even in this picture book.
The final page of this story tells what happened to Fala after FDR’s death. There’s even a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Memorial in Washington, DC that shows Fala sitting closely nearby.
I tried to find a similar one online, but the National Park Service’s photo isn’t as clear as the photo in the book. We’ll have to make due with this image here:
Before we end our tour of the book, let me mention how happy I am that on the back flap we find not only the biographical information about the author and illustrator, but also their photographs. My students want to see WHO created these books.
You can learn more about author Elizabeth Van Steenwyk by reading an interview with her from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 65 articles in the L.A. Times, and check out some of the other 70 titles she’s written such as
- Prairie Christmas
- When Abraham Talked to the Trees
- A Traitor Among Us
- My Name is York
- Levi Strauss – the Blue Jeans Man
- Three Dog Winter
For ordering information, go to the Peachtree website (or visit your local bookstores and demand they carry this). First Dog Fala is written by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk (author of 70 some books). I did find one review by Regan McMahon in the SF Quick Pick’s.
But, wait! Readers of this blog, you didn’t think I was finished, did you? Your students are going to ask, no, DEMAND more information about Fala, so let’s get ready by checking out a few online sources:
FDR’s Fala: The World’s Most Famous Dog has photos, video and audio excerpts of FDR’s Fala speech.
The FDR Presidential Library contains the "official biography" of Fala.
The Presidential Pets Museum records.
Eyewitness to History also contains the audio of his famous Fala speech.
Did you know you can book a private walking tour of the FDR memorial In Fala’s footsteps? He is the first pet to be featured in a presidential memorial, so he has earned the right.
Check out these photos in the Museum Collection.
Did you know about Fala and the Barkers for Britain? Good thing I checked the National Archives for you because you won’t want to miss this with your students.
Did you know Fala had his own secretary to deal with the thousands of letters he received?
Check out the anecdotes on Fala?
Okay, I confess that I did find one photograph of FDR in a wheelchair…
Did you know Fala articles became antiques?
Did you know the Ann Arbor District Library celebrates Fala Day the first Saturday in November each year?
Make sure you debunk the rumors that the president spent millions sending a destroyer back to pick up Fala on one of his trips.
For some surprising details about FDR’s health and a snippet about Arthur Prettyman, check out this article "A Killer of Paupers and Presidents"
Now, I’ve got to go read Santa’s 11 months off so I can see more delightful illustrations by Michael G. Montgomery.