Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s 1992 Newberry Medal Winner, Shiloh, is one of those rare books with an origin that can be traced back to a specific moment in time. That specific moment in time took place on a country road in West Virginia. While there to visit friends, Naylor and her husband’s leisurely walk was interrupted by the silent appearance of a terrified little dog barely more than skin and bones. While fearful little mutt shrunk away from the couple each time they tried to draw close, upon hearing Naylor whistle, it suddenly broke toward them, lept into her lap and proceeded to lick her face.
Of such events that become mundane half-forgotten memories in non-writers are award-winning stories made for those who make a living by creating something substantial out of the most nebulous of possibilities. The process of writing—especially the process that ends with a full-length novel—is not one that has Naylor returning home with inspiration for the title character of Shiloh with plot and characters already fully intact. That little dog rather quickly became the pet of their friends and, over the course of a much longer timeline, the real life version of the lovable little beagle surreptitiously adopted by her 11-year-old protagonist, Marty Preston.
The description of Naylor’s introduction to what likely remains the single greatest interruption of a relaxing walk in the country she ever experienced is likely to ring familiar to those who have already enjoyed the story of Marty and Shiloh’s struggle to stay together. That description of their first encounter when Marty spots a dog “not making any kind of noise, just slinking along with his head down, watching me, tail between his legs like he’s hardly got the right to breathe” sound exactly like what happened on that lonely stretch of West Virginia road where Marty and Shiloh’s friendship actually began.
Although now considered a bona-fide classic worthy of three sequels and adapted into a 1996 film, Shiloh’s Newberry Medal win came as something of a shock. Considered a dark horse candidate, some critics questioned the validity of its win. Even in the aftermath of receiving this prestigious honor as well as a few others, Shiloh has come under threat of censorship due to incredibly limited and remarkably inoffensive use of tepid profanity. Despite criticism leveled from some reviewers and some moral guardians, Shiloh’s success in resonating with its intended readership is unquestioned and irrefutable. In a list of the 100 most popular children’s books among child readers compiled by the National Education Association in 2000, Shiloh and its sequels collectively ranked number 7. Interestingly, a 2007 NEA list of the best children’s books according to teachers saw Shiloh failing to rank anywhere in the top 100.