SheepSheep is about the adventures of a Border collie pup. When the sheep ranch where he was born burns down, he’s sold to a pet store. From there, he ends up as a pet and then runs away, traveling with several people or alone, until he finally finds the home where he belongs. In many ways it’s a modern Black Beauty, although not quite so relentlessly depressing.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of the dog. He introduces himself as Jack because that’s the last name he’s given, but his name changes throughout the book—he points out that that dog names are only for a person’s convenience. He’s a poetic and insightful narrator, and it’s often amusing to see things from his point of view. When two hobos are peeing outside, he calls it “marking their territory” and he thinks boys and puppies are remarkably similar.

The book takes place in the 1950’s (in passing it’s mentioned that Eisenhower is president) and knowing that adds some helpful context—I doubt many kids would pick up on that clue, though. It’s a world where orphanages, hobos, and questionable traveling circuses are the norm.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


Billy, the guy who runs the circus, is awful. He beat a dog to death before Jack got there, and he beats Jack into unconsciousness as part of his training. The other dogs are terrified of Billy. Other circus animals are abused as well.


The Goat Man is one of the first people who adopts Jack—they travel the country with a wagon pulled by several goats, and it’s a happy life. Then the Goat Man gets sick and dies. It’s a sad scene as Jack, still a fairly young pup, doesn’t understand why his friend won’t wake up.

Self Worth

Jack really looks down on non-working dogs, such as those who are pets. He even (gasp!) thinks about lowering himself to be a pet after being abused in a circus and nearly starving to death. One of the homes he ran away from was a girl and her parents—it would have been a comfortable life, but she dressed him in baby clothes. Somehow, this is almost worse than abuse.

There’s a strong message of not letting yourself be less than you were intended to be, even if it means fairly major sacrifices. When Jack is starving and losing hope, he looks down on himself for losing sight of his purpose in life. He runs away from the circus, leaving behind friends who are so beaten down and so purposeless that they won’t run away even when they have the chance.

Jack starts to admire the bully who gave Luke grief because the bully tries to get adopted while Luke has just given up and doesn’t think he’s worth adopting. Jack is very disappointed in Luke because he’s given in to despair and isn’t trying to make his life better.

At least twice Jack puts himself in mortal danger to save people he doesn’t know because his Border collie instincts kick in. This is a way for him to stay true to his purpose as a Border collie, a working dog worth more than a mere pet.

The title of the book is Sheep, even though there are remarkably few sheep in the book. But they represent Jack’s purpose in life, and that’s the primary theme of the novel.


There are two pretty scary fires, one at the ranch which sets the events into motion and one in a circus tent full of people and terrified animals. No one is hurt, but they’re both kind of vivid. If fire is a phobia, these scenes might be disturbing.


Jack lives with some hobos for a little while. Basically, I think he’s wandered into Of Mice and Men—there’s the large but mostly gentle man-child who isn’t aware of his strength  and the wily smaller guy who gruffly cares for him and makes the tough decisions, in this case tying up Jack so he can’t follow them when they jump a train.

When Jack first meets Luke, the boy he ends up living with in the happy ending, he thinks the boy’s name is “Retardo” because that’s what the other kids call him because he can’t read. It’s several pages before Jack figures out his name is actually Luke.


Jack helps create distractions so the hobos can pick pockets. He’s a smart dog and knows what’s going on, but he still participates against his better judgment. He mentions that food bought with stolen money doesn’t taste as good.

Starvation is a theme throughout, and Jack reflects on what he will and won’t do to fill his tummy. He never does kill anything, although he thinks about what it would take to drive him to that.


Learning things is a major theme in the book. Jack wants desperately to learn about herding sheep from his father and the other Border collies. He learns what he can from listening to the wisdom of the Goat Man. He understands English well and looks forward to learning new languages whenever he meets new kinds of animals. He learns to read by looking over Luke’s shoulder when a neighborhood woman is teaching Luke to read The Call of the Wild.

Although the circus was a miserable experience and he learned things that were below him, he uses one of his tricks to get a home for Luke and him—anything you learn, no matter how you learn it, may come in handy.


I’m not totally sure what I think of some of the messages in the book, but it’s an interesting read and works well as a story told from the point of view of a dog—the voice is consistent and feels like a dog, albeit a remarkably intelligent one. I think it would be good for reluctant readers as it’s a somewhat philosophical and thought-provoking read, but it’s not very long. A lot is packed into 115 pages. It also offers challenges for young precocious readers beyond the typical 100ish page book.


Sheep by Valerie Hobbs
Published in 2006 by Scholastic, Inc.
Read personal copy

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