About The Dog Runner
The crops have failed and there isn’t enough food left to feed everybody alive. Food is at a premium, sold to the wealthiest for extortionate prices. Food parcels aren’t coming in as often as they once were.
Ella and Emery are starving in the poorer part of the city. Emery’s Mum lives in the countryside where people are trying to reintroduce indigenous crops to the land. The children want to reach her, but to do that, they must cross vast areas of dry land.
The only way their plan might work is with the help of their dogs.
I was delighted to be offered the chance to ask author Bren MacDibble some questions about her story. Her debut nobel, How To Bee, was a big favourite of 2018 and I was particularly impressed by how she turned serious topics into compelling fiction.
Thanks to Bren for your time and to Liz Scott for organising this opportunity.
Q&A with Bren MacDibble
Food production and land management play an important part in The Dog Runner. Why did you decide to write about these themes?
I’m very interested in where our food comes from and how we treat our environment, so when I wrote a story where a couple of kids take a dog cart across Australia, I made their reason for doing it to flee a famine-ravaged city, and it seemed natural to me, to take on a common threat to our food-security, which is wheat fungus, and expand that in my famine. We seem so disconnected from our food sources these days that we don’t understand how food is produced or the threats to our food from disease, lack of landcare or climate change. Australia is in a particularly strange place where we have a dry climate but we grow European foods, and yet the Aboriginal Peoples were growing and cultivating different grains, grinding flour and baking bread 600 years before the Egyptians. There is a wealth of knowledge and grain types that have previously been completely ignored, but which could be vital to our future as the planet warms.
What kind of books did you read to write this story? Was there anything you learned about for this first time?
I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, (a children’s version of that came out recently), also The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, both of these books talk about life and land use and land care before Australia was colonised. I was delighted to learn about all the methods of sustainably harvesting food: Fish nets that let the small fish through, and only killing large male kangaroos, and how the many peoples would travel to take advantage of seasonal harvests, like the protein-packed baked bogon moths.
The acknowledgments section mentions that you travelled as part of your research for The Dog Runner. How did this shape your work?
Yes, I received a travel grant from the Neilma Sidney Travel Fund. It was so good to visit the rail-trails and land the children travel across on their journey. Just to feel the heat and see the amazing colours of the dirt and study the plants other than grass that grow there, trying to imagine what that landscape would look like with even less vegetation. I also visited a mushroom tunnel, and a grassland regeneration project, and got to see sled dogs in action. Honestly, you think you know a little bit about a topic but when you visit people and talk to them, you learn so much more.
Ella and Emery travel across the land with the help of their dogs. Do you have any strong feelings about animals in children’s fiction? What is important when you write animal characters?
It’s easy to make animal characters too human, especially dogs who love to interact with humans, and one of these dogs is super smart, but I think it’s really important to show dogs being dogs. They have their needs and their limitations, they can supportive when the kids are down, or unpredictable and cause problems. Above all, the kids are ultimately responsible for the health and care of the dogs. They have to keep them safe and fed, and it’s a big responsibility in this book. Dogs are family, even when they’re naughty, and their needs can’t be ignored.
Ella’s Dad says that the people who survive extreme circumstances, such as a global food shortage, are the ones who learn to stand on their heads. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea?
He says when the world turns upside down the first ones to walk on their heads will survive. It’s a bit of an odd saying… but then he’s a dad, and we all know with Dadisms it’s the intent behind the saying that’s important. What he means is you have to be prepared to change immediately to suit the world you find yourself in. You can’t cling to your old ways and expect life to go back to normal. Survival is ultimately about being resourceful and thinking creatively about how to solve new problems. This is why it’s important to raise creative kids in an ever-changing world. Creativity may be the most important thing we can encourage in our kids, building, exploring, getting out in nature and just playing is super creative.
The book ends with a note of hope and makes references to seed banks. What could readers do now to care for the planet and support diverse food sources?
If you can source food that is produced without use of fertilisers and pesticides, buy this organically produced food as the land, insects and surrounding waterways are less damaged by natural processes, and you will encourage growth of this organic market. Eat what is grown locally and what is in season, learn some new recipes if you have to. If you eat meat, eat less red meat. Save beef for special occasions. Plant wildflowers, let grass grow long and have a few wild places for bugs, don’t spray weeds (dig them out by hand or put salt and boiling water on them if they’re in pavers) to keep the insects and bees healthy. Limit waste, especially plastic waste, and walk, cycle or take public transport more often.
Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a kid on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, Bren recently sold everything, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards downunder and arrived in the UK. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, hits the shelves on 2nd May.