Teague, M. (2002). Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School. New York: Scholastic Press.
Appetizer: Ike LaRue, a dog, has been sentenced to go to obedience school for two months after proving to be a bit of a trouble maker at home. Ike shares his worst daydreams about what is happening at the Igor Brotweiler Canine Academy to Mrs. LaRue through the letters he writes home. Growing frustrated with his situation and Mrs. LaRue's refusal to help, Ike decides to attempt a daring escape.
To balance and contrast Ike's letters, excerpts from newspapers are also included reporting on why Ike was imprisoned. This also draws out more parallels to positioning Ike as a criminal.
Ike's imaginings of being taken to a scary school building, dragged off by prison guards, etc. are all shown in black and white and include humorous touches to prevent the imagery from becoming too upsetting or scary. Also, preventing the imagined events from being upsetting is the fact that the readers are shown--in bright colors--what Ike's real school experiences are like (let's just say pats on the head and doggie treats are not denied). Readers will like how imaginative Ike is.
It's also worth noting that there are some difficult vocabulary words throughout the text--they're not only difficult for first and second graders, but for fourth and fifth graders as well. Terms like "melodramatic" and "hypochondriac" are included, which could become brief teaching moments. A teacher, on the second or third time sharing the book with students, could also explain the historical significance of "I like Ike."
"Dear Mrs. LaRue,
How could you do this to me? This is a PRISON, not a school! You should see the other dogs. They are BAD DOGS, Mrs. LaRue! I do not fit in."
"Day after day I'm forced to perform the most meaningless tasks. Today it was "sit" and "roll over," all day long."
"Finally, I had to be taken to the vet. Dr. Wilfrey claims that he can't find anything wrong with me, but I am certain I have an awful disease. I must come home at once.
"By the time you read this I will be gone. I have decided to attempt a daring escape. I'm sorry it has come to this, since I am really a very good dog, but frankly you left me no choice."
"So I have decided to return home. You may try to lock me up again, but that is a risk I must take. And frankly, even more than myself, I worry about you. You may not know it, Mrs. LaRue, but you need a dog!"
To Go with the Meal:
This picturebook could also be used in a lesson on letter (or email!) writing. A teacher could go into how to open and close a letter. Plus, since there's a huge difference between Ike's black and white imaginings of what the obedience school is like and the sunny reality, a teacher could discuss the books in terms of it having an unreliable narrator. With younger students this will almost certainly turn to a discussion of trust and how wrong lying is.
This would also be a great read for students nervous to go off to school or summer camp for the first time. And the idea of using Dear Mrs. LaRue for that purpose has special meaning for me. My first letters home to my parents from a girl scouts summer camp when I was 7 said something to the effect of "I hate it here. Come and get me now!!!!!!!" Clearly, I found Ike's experiences and voice to be relatable.
I also like this picturebook because the story begins with a newspaper article about Ike's sentencing. From the wording and incidents described, the reader may conclude that Ike is a bad dog. But as the letters are being written, the reader is shown Ike's reasonings for his past and current actions.
In terms of this book being about the experience of going to school, it shows the real teachers as supportive and encouraging even during assignments that Ike doesn't see the purpose of completing. But a student will understand why it's good for a dog to be able to sit. So, by extension, this can be a lesson on why it's still important for kids to do their lessons, even when they don't always immediately see the point.
Tasty Rating: !!!!