Friday, 28 February 2014

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

A few weeks ago the Telegraph published an article centred around When Mr Dog Bites, questioning whether children's books should come with recommended reader age warnings. You can read the article here, and the response of Bloomsbury Publishing Director Rebecca McNally here. It began a fascinating debate on social networks, prompting a lot of strong views. The reason for the language and some sexual discussion is quite obvious: the story is being narrated by a 16-year-old boy with Tourette's. I truly enjoyed the debate about profanity in children's books, and I do believe authors and editors only include it when it is truthful and necessary to the character and story. But if you want to read more about those debates, feel free to follow the links above. Needless to say, it was all this discussion that led to me reading the book, wanting to know what the fuss was about.

Dylan Mint is a likable character who, despite his Tourette's, isn't really all that different from other kids his age. He wants to have sex with the prettiest girl in his school, he wants to make sure his best friend is happy, and he wants his dad to come home from the war. But Dylan knows he is different, he knows he's at a school for people with disabilities, and he is all too aware of his own struggle with Tourette's. He tries to control it, but sometimes he can't and that's when "Mr Dog" comes out. He doesn't like his Tourette's, is embarrassed and apologetic to others for it, and then he hears the doctor say he's going to die in March. This springs Dylan to take action on making sure he does everything he really wants before March, leading to hilarious results and shocking discoveries.

There was one scene in When Mr Dog Bites that upset me, and not from the profanity, but due to how "normal" kids treated Dylan just because of his disability. They took advantage of him, and they wanted to exploit his Tourette's, his embarrassment, for their own amusement. It disturbed me because I saw the exact same thing happen many times while growing up. The school system I went to was different from Dylan's in that it was inclusive of children with mental and physical disabilities. They were in classes with all other children up until a certain age, and while they eventually were separated from us to attend their own classes, they were very much a part of our school and a part of the school's social events. I remember watching, horrified, as a group of teenage boys pushed a boy with mental disabilities to shout words he didn't understand, then laughing hysterically at the result. It was awful to experience in real life, and reading it from Dylan's perspective just made it more obvious as to how some people actually think it's funny when someone else has a disability, particularly one like Dylan's where he'll lose control and shout curse words. It's a type of bullying, and one I felt was addressed in the book particularly well.

When Mr Dog Bites is a book that doesn't just captivate and entertain, but really makes you think. Should someone like Dylan be treated any differently because of his condition? Does treating him differently make things better or worse for him? Would a more inclusive environment for teens with mental disabilities help them, or maybe even help other people understand the problems they face any better? Sure there's more swearing in this book than a standard YA novel, but to focus on that would be to miss the point. In a time where we're finally beginning to openly discuss mental health it's great to have a character like Dylan Mint who is able to face the demon that is his Tourette's and not let it ruin his life. He sets his goals at the beginning of the book and he doesn't give up. Like anyone else, Dylan may have his faults, but he seems to accept them in a way that is truly admirable.

As clearly stated on the back of the book, this isn't for younger readers. You can purchase When Mr Dog Bites from Bloomsbury here.

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