Laika The Astronaut by Owen Davey

It is 60 years since the first manned space mission and over 62 years since the first canines went into space.

On the cover of this book  Laika, the most famous of the Soviet space dogs, looks rather happy and unsuspecting about her fate as she is sent into orbit with no hope of return. The reality was very different, as the rocket ascended Laika’s heart raced and her breath rate quadrupled. She was trapped inside a specially adapted space suit that was fixed to a tiny, pressurised compartment (George).

It made me approach Davey’s book with some trepidation. Especially as the story begins with homeless, lonely Laika wishing for a family to love and a home of her own. It seems the little dog’s prayers are answered when she is taken off the streets and given to a group of scientists who start to test her for their new space ship.

Laika ‘trained very hard’ and the illustration showing Laika thinking of food as she is put to the test makes me think of Pavlov and his dog experiments and also dolphin trainers who starve the dolphins so they ‘perform’ in order to get food.

Soon the whole world watched as Laika blasted off into space. Laika felt ‘lonelier than ever’ as she orbited the earth and when something went wrong with her rocket, the monitoring scientists lost all contact with her.

As people on earth paid tribute to this brave little dog by putting her image on stamps and making statues of her, a surprise was in store for Laika. Instead of a lonely, terrifying death she was taken home by an alien family, who give her the love she had always wanted.

OK, so the reviews are a little brutal and describe Davey’s story as  ‘half-cooked’  (Kirkus Reviews) and a ‘bizarre mash-up of history and fantasy’ (Elizabeth Bush). But, I have reread it several times and with each reading comes more perspective.

Owen Davey reacted to the negative reviews on his blog. He wrote:

What happened to Laika was horrific, incredibly sad and unnecessary. Scientists involved in the mission have even stated that they don’t think they learned enough from the mission to justify what they did.

He says that his story addresses her death and even though it may go over the heads of children, and even adults,

“it most certainly was not half-cooked or offhand. It was thought about with great personal and collaborative depth.

I hope that a few people, at least, see what I was trying to do with this story. Laika deserved a happy ending, so I gave her one.”

I admit I didn’t get the link to  death and the subsequent whereabouts of a loved one (see Davey’s blog) but this is a story that sticks with you and I  think that this is indeed the story of a little, homeless dog who really deserved a happy ending.

Reading about the scientists who worked with Laika, the care they attempted to give her by taking her home to play with family members and feeding her a meal before the flight, it seems she was cared for, even if for the shortest time. Another dog, Albina, apparently out-performed Laika but was given reprieve because she had puppies and the scientists had grown fond of her.  Scientists who care about their animal test subjects?! Apparently, space dog trainer Oleg Gazenko said “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.”

This picture book will work well in an inquiry unit about propaganda. Davey’s Soviet inspired art work is brilliant. He uses the limited colours and heroic vigour of the original Soviet propaganda posters and also the artistic optimism that sacrifice is for the greater good. Lots to discuss and research.

On a related note, whilst researching the story of Laika I came across this animation by Nick Criscuolo on YouTube. It has a very similar ending to Davey’s story and was published on YouTube in 2010. What do your students think about that?! It has a Watership Down quality to it and is incredibly emotive. Not one for younger students but certainly one for older students perhaps in a TOK (Theory of Knowledge) lesson.

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