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Rez Dogs

by Joseph Bruchac

The fifth graders at our little elementary school in suburban New England are in the midst of an immersive poetry unit. Before beginning this unit of study, our 10 and 11 year-olds thought they knew all that poetry had to offer….boy, were they wrong! In recent weeks, our students have engaged in poetry clubs that are rooted in finding patterns in authors’ craft, territory, and themes of social justice. They have participated in a beatnik-style poetry slam that nudged our students to find poetry that speaks to them, while reinforcing reading fluency and expression. Now, our fifth graders are preparing to engage in books clubs all centered around novels in verse. 

Forever on the hunt to procure new, high-quality mentor texts that will engage our students, I was beyond excited to stumble upon Rez Dogs, by Joseph Bruchac.

Set in the present, Rez Dogs takes place on an Abenaki reservation during the height of our Covid-19 pandemic. Main character, Mailan is a 5th grade girl who has recently moved from Boston to the reservation to live with her grandparents while quarrentining and learning remotely. Mailan is befriended by Malsum, one of the reservation’s dogs. 

While poetically flashing back and forth in time, Mailan learns about her Abenaki history through the stories of her grandparents. Their stories parallel Mailan’s experience as they tell of living through past pandemics, isolation, and forced removal from their families.  

Students relate to Mailan’s experience of having to learn remotely and the feelings of isolation that they too may have experienced in the past two years. Like Mailan, who learns that when a community cares for one another, they can get through anything, students are reminded of the silver linings that surround us.

Rez Dogs gives voice to the unique and difficult experiences, both now and in the past,  of native americans. While for many of our students, this book may serve as a window into the life of someone who is different, it will also certainly be a mirror to their own experiences throughout this pandemic. 

Rez Dogs, serves as a beautiful mentor text for any poetry unit or realistic fiction unit of study in reading. It is also easily accessible as an independent reading book for middle grade students and would be a great addition to any classroom library. Our 5th graders are celebrating this text as a wonderful addition to our immersive poetry unit!

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