From the new book: City of Dogs New York Dogs, Their Neighborhoods, and the People Who Love Them
“We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them— our voices loud, our laughter even louder,” Jacqueline Woodson wrote in her novel Another Brooklyn. “But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades.” These days, Jackie is teaching her newest dog, Shadow, how to walk those streets. Shadow is a recent transplant from the South, just as Jackie and her family were back in the 1970s. As she walks Shadow and her elder dog, Toffee, it is both easy and hard to see how much the neighborhoods have changed and how much they remain the same.
Jackie is the author of more than two dozen books for children and young adults; her work often lifts memories and observations from her younger days in Bushwick, which she remembers as “a neighborhood of strivers.” The details make her stories resonate as autobiography, even when the characters are fully conjured from her imagination. But one thing you won’t find in her work is any mention of dogs. “Yeah,” she admits, “dogs don’t really make it into my work because I do try to keep my work separate from my life. My dogs are more ‘backstage’ for me—serving as the calm at home, the muses—and sometimes the anti-muses.”
Animals were always a part of her life, although one particular dog breed was long cast as the villain. “My mom was an animal lover and any animal we brought home, she immediately banned, then loved,” she says. “We usually brought home kittens that grew into backyard cats. When I was about seven, the German shepherd who lived on the top floor snuck down to our basement and killed our kitten—a yellow tabby named Sweetie. Sweetie had a broken back and had to drag his back legs when he walked. But he was fast as hell. Still, he couldn’t outrun the neighbor’s shepherd. My mother let all of us stay home from school that day. Basically, we stayed in our beds and sobbed—including my mother. When I was fourteen, I got bit by a German shepherd named King who lived on the block. That pretty much sealed the fate of German shepherds for me—I hated them.”
But then, when she was in her early thirties, a friend asked her to watch over a sickly puppy she had found on the streets. “She already had four dogs and her husband put his foot down on more coming in. I didn’t name the puppy, but by the third week in my tiny apartment, I knew I wasn’t going to let her go anywhere. At the time, I was reading Art Spiegelman and decided to name her Maus because she so looked like one of his illustrations. Maus turned out to be a full-bred Belgian shepherd—a black shepherd. My love for shepherds—because she was so amazingly sweet—was renewed. She loved babies and children. But then one morning, because I had to catch an early flight, I walked her at five a.m. From out of nowhere, a man started coming fast toward me and Maus went ballistic. He ran off. After that, I knew I had a dog that was not only extremely loving but fiercely protective. When Maus died at around thirteen, the whole family was shattered. But from that point on, I was a true lover of shepherds—and shepherd mixes.”
After Maus came Toffee, and now a gigantic shepherd poodle mix, Shadow, whom they briefly considered naming Muppet, because he looks like he could be related to Elmo or Cookie Monster. “When I’m not working, I love taking Toffee around. She’s very slow-moving these days, so she makes me slow down a lot. Shadow is still a puppy, so he’s a nut and is still barking at other dogs. Walks with him tend to be less relaxing unless we head to the park, where he can be off-leash a bit and get out the crazies.”
Their Park Slope neighborhood offers a lot of territory to explore, from the iconic Art Deco façade of the Brooklyn Public Library to the lush sprawl of Prospect Park. “To watch your home change in front of you is surprising,” she said in an interview with the Rumpus. “Even with all of its changing, Brooklyn’s architecture still feels like home; the language feels like home.” But as enticing as it is for a writer and two dogs to explore, it is just as rewarding to retreat back to the brownstone they call home, where they can each occupy themselves within their imaginations for an afternoon, and wait for the kids to come home.
Published with permission from City of Dogs New York Dogs, Their Neighborhoods, and the People Who Love Them (Penguin Random House) text by Ken Foster, photographs by Traer Scott. The book is released October 9, 2018.