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Review of the Day: The Incredible Life of Balto by Meghan McCarthy

The Incredible Life of Balto
By Meghan McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-375-84460-7
Ages 4 and up
On shelves August 9th

I’m not a dog person. Like ‘em fine. Don’t see much particular need to interact with them on a regular basis. Sometimes, though, I’ll feel like my life as a children’s librarian would have been easier if I had been a canine fanatic. A large swath of children’s literature each year is dedicated to man’s best friend. This year alone I’ve seen dogs traveling vast distances to be reunited with their loved ones (A Dog’s Way Home), convince kids that they are transformed accountants (The Ogre of Oglefort), and even appear as gallons of orange juice (When Life Gives You O.J.). Nonfiction doggies proliferate as well but I can usually steer clear of them. Unless Meghan McCarthy is involved, of course. Then I’m going to have to see what all the fuss is about. In this particular case, Ms. McCarthy has taken what at first appears to be a well-known story then finds the lesser known tales lurking inside of it. The result is a biography that’s bound to please dog lovers and dog neutrals (like myself) alike.

The year: 1925. The place: Nome, Alaska. The problem: An epidemic of diphtheria was imminent and yet a horrible blizzard was preventing all incoming planes from delivering the much needed serum. The solution: Balto. Sled dogs, you see, were dispatched with the serum on board and Balto was at the head of one of these teams. When Balto’s group missed the next team at the next checkpoint, they were lead onward by Balto until they got to Nome themselves. That’s the story lots of people know. What is less well known is what happened next. Balto was celebrated throughout the States, appearing in movies, on dog food cans, and even earning a statue in Central Park. Sadly, he and his team went on the vaudeville circuit and ended up underfed and neglected. Yet surprisingly the good people of Cleveland banded together to purchase the brave dog and his sled mates. As a result he spent the remainder of his days running around the Brookside Zoo where he, “could relax and enjoy the rest of his life.”

The queen of the amusing nonfiction picture book for young readers, McCarthy’s titles are always remarkable because they cover ground no one else does. Whether it’s the invention of bubble gum or a false report of an alien invasion, McCarthy’s titles are always wholly new. That’s why I was so surprised by her choice to tackle Balto next. As real life heroic dogs go, Balto’s pretty darn well known. Even had a terrible animated film based on his life (has any other real life heroic animal received such an honor?). Yet as it happens the choice to pursue his story after the well-known event was what sets this book apart from the pack (ho ho). By page twelve the book has covered the part of the tale that everyone knows. After that it’s in brand new territory.

The picture book biography is a strange beastie. Your readership, for one thing, consists of a wide range of ages. As a result, some authors figure that it’s a good idea to play it safe. You want to tell an accurate story of the past, but you need to find a way of doing so that doesn’t go into some of the more unpleasant details at length. In this particular case, the mistreatment of Balto and his fellow sled dogs. Sold to a man with a sideshow, McCarthy makes it clear that things look bad for Balto. Yet no one wants to look at abused animals in a picture book, even if it is a true story. McCarthy’s solution is twofold. In the text you actually don’t hear anything about the abuse. All it says is that they were sold and “There Balto and the others were all but forgotten.” Next, there are the pictures where McCarthy is careful to walk a fine line. She shows Balto and another dog against a gray background with thick chains attached to their collars. Balto’s ears droop as he regards an upside down food dish, clearly empty. On the next page Balto watches as the man from Cleveland tries to do business with the sideshow owner. If you look at the dog, you’ll notice that he’s skinnier and mangier than he was in the past. McCarthy even gives one of his ears a half-cocked look, just to make the impression that all is not well. It’s subtle, but in children’s books sometimes you have to be subtle to be both honest and kid appropriate.

Under normal circumstances I don‘t much care for reviewing a work of nonfiction, even a picture book, without seeing the backmatter first. The galley of Balto that I’m reviewing from does not have anything in the accompanying “Author’s Note” at the end yet. Like I say, I usually find this to be a problem, but for Ms. McCarthy I will always make an exception. The reason for this has to do with her track record. By and large, when you pick up a Meghan McCarthy book you pick up a picture book work of nonfiction that has some of the finest end matter in the biz, be it a biography of a hawk, or the finer points of space travel. I once sat in on an American Library Association gathering of their Notables committee where they debated the various attributes of McCarthy’s biography of Charles Atlas Strong Man. The endmatter in that particular book contained some fun exercises that kids could do on their own. Someone on the committee lamented, though, that there weren’t any warning labels that kids could get hurt doing these exercises (which contained all the danger of your average sit-up). This was, to be blunt about it, an inane bone to pick with the book. Ms. McCarthy’s Author’s Notes do not suffer fools. So while I cannot tell you what this book will say in the end, I can at least rest assured in my own mind that whatever it contains, it should be well thought out, well researched, and interested. But, as I say, I did not see it myself to be fair warned.

A picture book work of nonfiction that reads like a picture book work of fiction is a valuable commodity. Subject matter is key, of course, as are intelligent illustrations that engage even as they inform. Meghan McCarthy’s consistently high-quality works make her one of the best nonfiction picture book author/illustrators of the day. Imagine! Writing that’s just as good as the art focusing on subjects everyone wants to know more about. Display this book and expect a hoard of kids who want to know more about the cute dog on the cover. Teaching history was never so easy.

On shelves August 9th.

Source: Galley borrowed from co-worker for review.

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks


  • It’s Nonfiction Monday!  Head on over to Prose and Kahn for the round-up.
  • Want to see videos, behind the scenes info on the book, as well as interior shots?  Go to Meghan McCarthy’s Balto page for all this and more.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says

    On Meghan McCarthy’s Balto Page, the one you provided a link to at the end of today’s entry, you can read her author’s note. It is, as you predicted, excellent.

  2. A thoughtful review and savvy observation re: the page 12 threshold, Betsy. Meghan sets the bar high for choosing eclectic subject matter.

  3. What?! I love the animated movie Balto! He SAVES ALL THE CHILDREN!!! But I haven’t seen it in a long time, so you’re probably right that it’s terrible. 🙂

    I have been fascinated by this story ever since I read the grownup nonfiction book THE CRUELEST MILES by Gay Salisbury and I love Meghan McCarty’s stuff, so you can bet your boots I’ll be getting my grubby hands on this one ASAP.

  4. Chiming in late here but you know what’s funny about the Balto story? In Alaska his musher was known to have purposely skipped the final team so he could get into Nome and capture the glory of delivering the serum. It was something still talked about by those who were there seventy years later when I was working for the airline in Fairbanks. I think it’s awful what happened to Balto and crew afterward but I have to shake my head everytime I see the myth repeated that they missed that final handoff.

    Of course no one ever wants to think someone would be looking for glory when delivering diphtheria serum….. 🙂

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Meghan mentioned something about this in a talk. Or rather, she mentioned a Balto backlash that occurred some years after all the hooplah. Only in that case people were doubting that Balto had even made the run at all. There was discussion of removing his Central Park statue even. Eventually it was proved that Balto did do the run all along, so I wonder if the musher story is along the same lines. Ah well.