Sometimes a mistake can turn into a pleasant surprise. A glossy book cover depicting a dog and cat caught my attention at a recent book sale. There was text on the cover that said something about “first pets” and “letters”. I didn’t look further because I had a lot more books to look through, and I had already seen enough. Letters from my students to their first pets would make for a fun assignment. But when I finally got around to reading the book recently, I discovered that Dear Socks, Dear Buddy by Hillary Clinton is about kids’ letters to THE first pets. I prepared myself for disappointed, but then came that pleasant surprise I mentioned earlier. The book is dated, as today’s kids likely have never heard of Socks and Buddy, but it’s cute and educational. I enjoyed it, and I think kids will too.
As a pet lover I especially enjoyed the chapter entitled “Paw Prints in the White House”. For example, did you know that Socks is only the fourth cat to live in the White House? Apparently, this is why Socks became a celebrity, and was immortalized in poems, on postage stamps, and even in online cartoons. Or did you know that President Roosevelt’s children had a menagerie that included snakes, a one-legged rooster, a black bear, and two kangaroo rats? Supposedly, their best known pet was an Icelandic calico pony, which once got stuck in an elevator. Did you know that until the early part of this century, it was not uncommon for the first families to keep farm animals too? Presidents owned horses and even cows and sheep. To read more about pets in the White House, President Adam’s Alligator and Other White House Pets by Peter and Cheryl Barnes.
Dear Socks, Dear Buddy contains dozens of letters from kids to the White House pets. As a teacher, I envision using these letters as models for my own students, to encourage their literacy. When you think of literacy, you probably think foremost of the ability to read. However, the ability to write is just as critical, and perhaps even more necessary today with our reliance on cell phones and quickly composed emails. Moreover, the ability to read and to write complement one another. Research even shows that those who grasp writing from an early age will more quickly improve their reading ability.
Especially at the elementary-school level, animals are almost always a sure way to garner student participation. So, even though the letters are to THE first pets, they would still make appropriate examples. Some letters are short; others are long. Some are typed; others are handwritten and contain spelling mistakes. Some have pictures; others just have pleas for photos. In other words, there is ample variety. There is even a whole chapter about ways that parents can encourage their children to write such as creating invitations, sending thank-you notes, keeping a journal, or even preparing a shopping list. To read more about families writing together, Families Writing by Peter Stillman.
There is actually a second educational use for Dear Socks, Dear Buddy. At some point in school, young people will learn about the government. Starting out with a talk about the pets of the President and the First Lady can help make a potentially dull topic more palpable. Also, what more approachable way to have students apply their knowledge than to write letters to the White House pets? Granted, young people will only learn a small amount about the tasks of the President and the First Lady, the operations of hired personal, and the rooms of the White House. View it as a start. Or a supplement. Actually, that’s all it took for me as a Canadian to take an interest in understanding politics.
If you don’t have children? You can still enjoy all the letter writers’ creative questions, such as: Do you make the President sneeze? Do you have royal cat food? Do Secret Service agents take care of you? Or the astounding advice, such as: Don’t chew the President’s papers. Don’t hit one another. I have fish; please don’t eat them.
Dear Socks, Dear Buddy also caters to fans of the American presidents. Through the abundance of photos of the President and the First Lady with their pets, one can see a human side to our leaders. In learning about the initial squabble between Socks and Buddy, I found myself relating to their family, because neither of our cats have taken well to our dogs. It was also fun to read about the favorite toys and resting spots of their pets. On the practical side, the thought-process behind the Clintons’ pet choices can serve as a model for prospective pet owners. As can reading about how they arranged for walks and playtime for their pets and for their care during travels.
Dear Socks, Dear Buddy isn’t a perfect book. It’s about the former President Clinton and his wife and their pets. This makes it dated. And limited in scope. Although most of the photos are of the presidential pets, there is the odd one which is of the pet of a child who sent a letter. While I think including photos from the letter-writers would have been a nice addition, those are so few that I wonder how selections were made. Then there’s the supplemental material. Although I appreciate the plea to support our parks, it doesn’t seem fitting in a book about animals. Last, I wonder about the intended audience. The inclusion of so many children’s letters seem to make it appropriate for younger readers, but the rest of the content is clearly aimed at adults. Is it for families? I’m not sure.
I purchased Dear Socks, Dear Buddy by mistake. Would I buy today, knowing what it’s really about? Although I can see its strong educational potential, I doubt it. And yet I am glad to have it. The book is adorable, gives a glimpse into an important part of American culture, and serves as a promotion both for pet care and literacy. If you come across it, by all means take time to read it.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?