Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Dogs of Winter: The story behind the story

As most of you know, I have a new book coming out October first. The book is called, The Dogs of Winter, and it's being published by Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), and edited by The Man himself! I'll be blogging about this book a bit over the next five weeks, but I thought what I'd do in this first blog is tell you the "story behind the story."

My book is based on a real child named Ivan Mishukov, and two amazing, heartbreaking, and ultimately (for me) inspiring years in his young life. Ivan, like tens of thousand of other children, found himself abandoned to the streets of Moscow in the mid 1990s. Yes, I said the 1990s, not the early part of the 20th century! When the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, the socio-economic impact on the people of Russia was devastating. Families who were barely hanging on by a thread suddenly found themselves without any kind of safety net. Yes, there had been food shortages and the infamous food lines when the Soviet Union was still in tact, but rent was controlled (by the government) to a minimal charge, health care was free, and pensions existed. All of that, plus much more, went away within just a few short years. By the mid 1990s there were an estimated 80,000 to 1 million children and teens living homeless on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The vast majority of these children were considered "social orphans." They had at least one living parent. At the same time, dogs were abandoned to the streets to fend for themselves as well. Anything that required money for food, shelter and care was abandoned to the streets.

Ivan Mishukov, 1998
Most of these homeless children lived in the extensive (and elegant) underground train stations in Moscow. There, they would form packs (often lorded over by an older teen or adult) and beg, steal, and forage for food, alcohol, and drugs. They became as ever-present and invisible as the cold. They were often exploited and harmed by adults, even the police. Ivan's young age did not set him apart from the other children. Many of these "orphans" were under the age of ten. Ivan was four when he ended up on the streets. What did set him apart was the fact that Ivan, for whatever reason, chose to throw in his lot with a pack of feral street dogs rather than a pack of children. For two years, he survived the notoriously cold Russian winters and the dangers of the street by living with the pack. My book is a fictionalized account of those two years.

I first came across Ivan's story in 2005 in an article on feral children. When I read it, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I shivered all over. I knew that if I never wrote another book (or any book for that matter) I had to write Ivan's story. I made a copy of a photo of Ivan taken not long after his capture and separation from the dogs and pinned it to the bulletin board in my office. Every day I looked at those haunted eyes and promised him I would write his story.

It took eleven years, but I kept that promise.


  1. I'm so looking forward to reading your new book, Bobbie, and I'm so very glad you wrote it! I know I'm going to be moved and inspired by this true story and your words.

    Congratulations on the Kirkus starred review!

  2. Thanks so much, Monica! I'll be posting more about the book in the coming weeks.

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