Mountain Dog

Mountain Dog9781250044242_p0_v3_s192x300Mountain Dog

Margarita Engle, Author

Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, Illustrators

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, 2014

Paperback Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Rescue dogs, Human-animal relationships, Family relationships, Foster care, Hispanic-Americans, Sierra Nevada

Opening: “In my other life there were pit bulls. / The puppies weren’t born vicious, / but Mom taught them how to bite, / turning meanness into money, / until she got caught.”

Book Synopsis: When Tony’s mother goes to jail for being cruel to animals, he is sent to live with a great-uncle he has never met in Sierra Nevada. It is a big move for Tony and different from his life in Los Angeles. Uncle Tio is a forest ranger and owns Gabe, a search-and-rescue dog (SAR). Tony learns the skills he needs to survive in his new environment. With the friendship of Gabe and the support from his uncle, Tony opens himself to a life and a future he never could have imagined.

Why I like Mountain Dog:

  • Margarita Engle writes a moving and sensitive novel that touches on historical facts that include immigration, unhealthy and healthy family relationships, cruelty of animals, and search-and-rescue dogs along the Pacific coast wilderness trails.
  • It is a beautifully inspiring story written in free verse, with alternating chapters in Tony’s and Gabe’s voices. The language is strong and captures Tony’s pain as he struggles with his complicated feelings about his mother and his new life. Gabe shares his upbeat insights into Tony and his unconditional doggy love. I believe it is a story that will appeal to both genders.
  • In many ways, this is a coming of age story for an 11-year-old boy who gets a real chance to experience family with his Tio and Gabe, as he settles into the search and rescue life of the community. The characters are realistic and memorable. There are friendships with Gracie and members of the Cowboy Church (which welcomes horses and dogs), and fellow hikers.
  • The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the vast wilderness that will keep readers turning pages. There is no tidy ending with Tony’s mother.  This is a very sensitive story about a boy who begins to dream, find purpose in his life, and heal.
  • Readers will also enjoy the facts woven into the story about the choice and training of SAR dogs, what to do if you get lost, and survival tips. Olga and Aleksey Ivanov’s black and white illustrations of the SAR dogs in action, bears and wildlife, wilderness treats, and paw prints contribute significantly to Tony’s story.

Resources: There is much back matter in the book from the author, who owns SAR dogs, which makes this a perfect classroom discussion book.  Margarita Engle is a Newbery Honor winner for The Surrender Tree and has written poems plus historical fiction works.  Visit Engle’s website where teachers can find activities for the classroom.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Drum Dream Girl

Drum Dream Girl9780544102293_p0_v4_s260x420Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.