The first time I read this book to the children in my life, their reaction was a combination of fear and concern. I had to encourage them to read the story to the very end, so we could enjoy the happy ending.
The reason there was such a strong reaction is because the main character is Spike, a dog who is naturally so ugly he wins an ‘Ugliest Dog in the Universe Contest.’ Immediately after winning the contest, his owner ties Spike to the porch and moves away, leaving the dog behind. Not only does this awful man abandon the dog, he also gleeful shouts insults at the animal as he drives away.
Yeah, that guy is mean.
The neighbor boy starts caring for Spike and wants to adopt him. As it turns out, Spike is an extremely well-behaved dog, so the only objection the boy’s mother has is financial. They can’t afford a pet.
All of this is told, first person, by Spike. The pictures are lovely and there is nothing scary, violent or threatening about the images. The tension is created by the story itself. But the experience of being called names, forced out of a family or circle of friends and wanting to belong are easy for children to empathize with, and Spike is a genuinely nice and lovable dog who doesn’t deserve to be treated so badly. So, around this household, the reaction to the story was rather emotional during the first reading.
In the end, not only is he adopted by the neighbor boy, Spike also rescues the neighbor’s cat (a prize winning show cat) from a would-be kidnapper and is featured in the local newspaper as a hero dog, which is much better than being the ugly dog.
Spike is thrilled when people ask if Spike is the Ugliest Dog, and his new owners respond with:
“Actually, he’s the most beloved dog in the universe – and this is just the boy to take care of him.”
The happy ending is an excellent resolution and the story is equal parts sad, exciting and happy. After that first reading, this became a family favorite. It’s the kind of story kids like to hear because they know how it will end.
–Spike, the Ugliest Dog in the Universe by Debra Frasier