The Dogs of Winter

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
The Dogs of Winter Book Poster Image
Harrowing but uplifting story of orphan saved by dogs.

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Kids say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Russian vocabulary such as "sapsibo," "pozhalsta," and more. Russian folklore such as the firebird, Baba Yaga, and some fairy tales are mentioned briefly. The author's note explains the background of homeless children in post-communist Russia and about the real Ivan who inspired the story. What it's like to survive on the streets, especially without resorting to crime.

Positive Messages

Children need to feel loved and protected. Those who aren't turn on each other, become addicted to drugs, and resort to crime to survive and cope. Those who protect and love you are your family. Survival depends on working together and taking care of one another.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mishka, 5 years old at the beginning, wants to be a good boy. He knows stealing and hurting other people is wrong and refuses to do those things even when he's starving on the streets of Moscow in winter. No matter how little he has, he always shares it with the others in his dog-pack family. He's brave, loyal, resourceful, and helpful. With very few exceptions, people are cruel and sometimes downright evil. His mother and grandmother are loving, and one stranger genuinely tries to help.

Violence

Frequent fighting with hitting, kicking, punching, biting, and hard slaps on the face described. Blood's mentioned but not described. Sounds of skull cracking, bones crunching mentioned. Perilous situations like not being able to escape a fire and being attacked by a wild boar. A kid brandishes a gun. Past mention of knifing in the belly. Five-year-old Mishka sees and hears his mother being physically abused, and the same man hits him several times. Mishka encounters death several times, and dead bodies are described briefly.

Sex

Girls (all under 14) go away with men for short periods of time and return to the gang with money.

Language

"Pee" once.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Children under 14 living on the streets frequently drink vodka, smoke cigarettes, and trade with both. Some kids are seen breathing in and out of paper bags and their interest in glue is mentioned. Cigarettes and vodka are offered by the police as a reward.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Dogs of Winter, based on a true story, is a harrowing account of 5-year-old Mishka, who's left to fend for himself on the streets of Moscow in the years after the Communist regime fell. It's a violent, harsh story with frequent descriptions of punching, hitting, kicking, scratching, and biting. Blood's mentioned but not described. Children and young teens are frequently depicted drinking, smoking, and huffing from paper bags. People and animals are frequently in peril, and Mishka sees more than his share of death. He's an admirable kid who refuses to steal and always shares what he has. This is a heartwarming yet bittersweet survival story.

User Reviews

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Teen, 13 years old Written byCrystal12345678910 November 9, 2018
Teen, 16 years old Written byBrigidArmbrust September 11, 2018

What's the story?

When 5-year-old Mishka's mother disappears, her abusive boyfriend takes Mishka from his village and tries to turn him in to a Moscow orphanage. Mishka runs away and finds himself alone on unfamiliar streets just as winter is about to start. Mishka falls in with a gang of children, among hundreds of thousands, who live in a subway station and survive by begging and stealing. It's a harsh, violent world, with the children often turning on each other. Eventually Mishka befriends one of Moscow's many feral dogs and names him Lucky. Lucky brings Mishka into his pack, and together they're able to survive, if just barely. After living for so long with only the dogs for companionship and support, can Mishka ever return to human society?

Is it any good?

Not just for dog lovers, THE DOGS OF WINTER is a gripping survival tale -- based on a true story -- that takes readers on an astonishing journey filled with excitement, danger, heartache, and joy. Pyron writes from a 5-year-old's perspective with grit and heart, beautifully conveying his imperfect understanding of events without dumbing anything down.

Kids will admire Mishka as he insists on doing what's right, and they'll root for him as he and his family of dogs struggle to survive. Mishka's effort to find his place in the world will especially appeal to older grade schoolers and middle schoolers as their own world becomes wider and sometimes scarier, too.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories about dogs are so popular. What do we love so much about dogs? What can they teach us?

  • Is Mishka better off with the dogs than he would be in an orphanage? Why does Mishka think he's better off living with his dog family?

  • Homelessness is a big problem in Moscow and the United States. What are some things you can do to help homeless people and to help solve the problem?

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