As it happens, Meghan McCarthy, the author and illustrator, lives in New York City. Her previous children’s books have been about heroes both human (“Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas”) and otherwise (“City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male,” “Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse”). This time her subject is the Siberian husky Balto, whose memory is honored by a Central Park statue.
Among dogs of note, Balto is particularly well known. But children will appreciate the simple and engaging text, and also the cartoonish bug-eyed dogs. The story, about a doctor in remote Nome, Alaska, whose only means of obtaining a diphtheria serum from Anchorage was to send a telegram followed by a dog sled for transport, may be as alien to Internet-age children as “The War of the Worlds,” the subject of another of McCarthy’s children’s books, was to a previous generation.
But the story of Balto leading his team to its destination despite punishing conditions —several dogs died on the trek when their lungs burst from the cold — is gripping even in the retelling. And McCarthy’s version benefits by relating what happened after the successful journey. Here, surprisingly, the story gains emotional power. Though Balto’s triumph led to a canine biopic and a dog-food endorsement deal, he was eventually relegated to a sideshow act — the 1920s equivalent of winding up on “Celebrity Rehab.”
McCarthy wisely showcases the efforts of classroom children to generate money for Balto’s own rescue, which may inspire young readers to similar grass-roots feats. If only the ending didn’t find Balto housed in a city zoo, not exactly a paragon of mush dog freedom. Endnotes add further complexity and ambiguity to a story that touches on the nature of fame and the role of the press and of history books in celebrating the famous.