Review: When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan
By Lorna Collins
When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan is about a 16 year old boy, Dylan Mint, who suffers from Tourette Syndrome and attends a special school. Brian Conaghan himself was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome when he was 37, although he was not one of the apparently rare sufferers for whom involuntary swearing is an issue. Conaghan describes feeling as though there was a dog inside him which would occasionally come out of his mouth making him bark when he was stressed, and he uses this experience as the title of the book.
Although apprehensive about reading a book which has quite so much swearing in it, I enjoyed the book to begin with, and was rapidly drawn into Dylan’s world. Conaghan deals with the subject of Tourette Syndrome with empathy and humour. There are comical threads thoughout the book – Dylan’s ‘bucket list’ (he believes he only has a few months to live), his mother’s boyfriend ‘the taxi driver’ and the fact that we become increasingly sceptical of Dylan’s explanation of his father’s absence from the family home. The book has similarities with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003); however, Conaghan’s book is not as skilfully written and loses its way in the middle with what I felt to be an overload of foul language and a concentration on the seedier aspects of the minds of teenage boys. In particular, the chapter in which Dylan is bullied by the two older boys seemed to plumb the depths unnecessarily. Dylan also seems very immature for a 16 year old, behaving more like a younger boy, and I had to keep reminding myself that he was supposed to be 16.
The book regains its credibility towards the end when Conaghan returns to the subjects of Dylan’s ‘bucket list’, his mother’s boyfriend (whom Dylan resolutely called the ‘taxi driver’ and is persistently puzzled as to why his mother keeps inviting a taxi driver in), and the real whereabouts of Dylan’s father.
It is impossible to discuss a book like this without considering the impact of the language used, since it is obvious from the front cover of at least one edition that the book contains a great deal of swearing. When the book first appeared, the Culture Editor of the Telegraph, Martin Chilton wrote an article questioning whether there should be classifications for children’s books as there are for films. He also felt that “the profanity in the book is overwhelming and troubling”. I tend to agree.
In her response to Chilton’s article, Rebecca McNally, the Publishing Director of Bloomsbury Books, argues that “with the Tourette’s theme, it was hard to see a way around the swearing”. However, much of the swearing in the book has nothing to do with Dylan’s Tourette Syndrome. In fact, it is most of the other children, including those from the ‘normal’ school, who use profane language as part of their everyday conversation. Conaghan’s reason for including the swearing also seemed to have little to do with Dylan’s condition, since he argues (on the Carnegie Shadowing site) that this was the language heard routinely in a Glasgow secondary school. Either way, I felt the language used often detracted from what would otherwise have been a quirky, humorous and enlightening take on a little known condition.
Additional Video Links
- Brian Conaghan talking about When Mr Dog Bites
- Dramatic interpretation of the book performed at a Tourette Syndrome Mentoring Brunch in New York
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.