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Bookmonger: Dog tales for middle-grade readers

Published on May 10, 2018 12:01AM

I’ve always shied away from books about dogs. Don’t get me wrong: I like dogs, but I cry my eyes out when authors make the dog die at the end of the story.

So it’s unusual to find myself reviewing two middle-grade books about dogs this week!

“Code Word Courage” is the latest addition to the “Dogs of World War II” series written by Kenmore, Wash., author Kirby Larson. Like “Duke,” “Dash” and “Liberty” — the previous books in the series — this new story shows how kids are strengthened by the emotional support of their canine friends while they learn to navigate a grown-up world that includes war, injustice and wrenching change.

In “Code Word Courage,” Billie lives with her great-aunt on a ranch in the Southwest. Her big brother comes home from basic training for one last weekend before shipping out overseas, and he brings a buddy from boot camp with him — Denny is Navajo. They’ve also brought an injured dog that they picked up alongside the road.

Despite her aunt’s reservations, Billie promises to look after the dog, whom they name Bear.

After this weekend, the story bifurcates between Billie and Denny. She deals with the drama of shifting alliances among school chums, while Denny and some of his fellow Navajo soldiers get trained as Code Talkers, and then get sent to Iwo Jima to fight.

In different ways, both Billie and Denny rely on Bear’s enduring, faithful spirit to help them get through difficult times.

Larson reliably creates likable characters. But this story line isn’t as strong as some of her other books, and the sudden connection between Billie and Denny — emphasized over Billie’s much longer relationship with her brother — doesn’t ring true.

The expository epilogue Larson provides also falls short. It would have been better to end with an author’s note explaining the important role that Code Talkers played during World War II.

In the other book, “Good Dog,” Cashmere, Wash., author Dan Gemeinhart gets the bad news out of the way upfront: He starts out with a dead dog.

But Brodie refuses to stay in the afterlife while his boy, back in the living world, remains in danger. With the help of two fellow animal spirits — Tuck is a friendly pit bull and Patsy is a cranky cat — Brodie wants to try to shape a better future for the beloved human he left behind.

To pull this off, Gemeinhart conceives of a vivid eschatology that some parents could find problematic. It’s a kind of 21st century spiritual take on “Incredible Journey,” with wisecracking, chase scenes, terrifying encounters with some very bad-news hellhounds, and an all-too-human monster.

The result is an exciting, compelling story, though this book may be too intense for some kids.

As for me, knowing that the dog was dead at the beginning of the tale? That just meant that I wept periodically throughout the book, instead of only at the end.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.


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