I’ve been working on a draft of a chapter about how Jack and Owney interacted (or didn’t interact with) children and how children’s literature (or the lack thereof) has shaped their legacies. It’s been fascinating, as a grown woman and historian, to critically read a bunch of cute books about dogs meant for the wee ones. I’ve been steadily accumulating books about Owney for the last year plus, and I think I have all of the ones that feature him exclusively. And there are quite a few. I find it actually surprising, particularly since many of them were released in the same 10 year span. Unsurprisingly, they’re all relatively similar.
I’ve also got a children’s book about Roxey, a Long Island rail dog, riding in the early 20th century, after both Jack and Owney were dead. I have another about Railway Bob, an Australian rail dog. Then there is another book about a western mail dog named Calico Dorsey.
As you can see, one name is clearly missing from this list. There is no Railroad Jack book. There are a lot of factors (SO. MANY. FACTORS.) that have contributed to Jack being relegated to the dog house of history and I think his lack of representation in kid’s stuff is a piece of it.
Jack actually did get featured in children’s literature, in both children’s magazines and newspaper columns, during his lifetime. But just like with all of the other frustrations of this project, he disappears from it all after his death. Owney lives on for a few more years, gets his stuffed corpse put in the Smithsonian, and the rest is (remembered) history.
The other interesting piece, which I have been bemused about from the start, is I find Owney a funny children’s book subject. On the surface it is all cute, but when you actually get to know real Owney (as much as that is possible), he was prone to grumpiness, and in some cases, straight-up meanness. By most accounts, Jack was actually the friendlier of the two. Looking at children’s literature is pretty telling about how Owney’s story has changed and been sanitized over the decades since his death. I mean, it would have to be right? A story about a mange-ridden, chicken-murdering, grumpy dog who get’s gunned down doesn’t make the cutest story. But a happy pup traipsing around the world? That’s the ticket.
So that brings us to the central question of this post’s title. Should Jack have his own children’s book? I’m not sure. As you can see, the market for train-riding dog books is surprisingly saturated. And while, as an educator, I want kids to get interested in history, I feel weirdly protective of Jack’s story and hate to think of it being so sanitized. Maybe there is an opportunity there, however. In my years as a museum educator, I’ve found that children are far more morbidly curious than most children’s literature gives them credit for. So, who knows. Maybe I’ve found a companion project for my grown-up book.