Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen

Every year, I have a few students that I refer to as my “Paulsen Posse”.  They read every book Gary Paulsen has written, use him as a mentor in their writing, and talk about all of the Paulsen-like adventures they plan to live.  Now, I like Gary Paulsen as much as the next guy- maybe even a little more because he inspires so many dormant readers.  But I’ve never connected to him like the posse does.  

That just changed. Notes from the Dog is Gary Paulsen’s latest novel (available tomorrow!).  A thin little book, I didn’t give it much thought when I sat down to read.  Little did I know…

Finn is a fifteen-year-old loner.  His goal for summer vacation is to talk to as few people as possible.  He figures he can get by just talking to his father, his true friend, Matthew, his grandfather, and his dog, Dylan.  It’s not that he doesn’t like people.  He just can’t figure them out so he prefers to avoid them.  Settling in for a summer full of books, his world is turned upside down when Johanna moves in next door.  Housesitting for the summer, Johanna is cool, pretty, and chatty.  Before he even realizes it, Finn has been swept up into her world.  And you know what?  It’s not that bad….a pretty, older girl likes Finn!

Johanna treats Finn like an equal.  He finds it easy to talk to her which never happens with girls.  Plus, Dylan loves her.  And she’s pretty, which doesn’t hurt. Slowly but surely, she manages to draw Finn out of his shell. But most importantly, she’s a good friend to Finn.  She’s obviously not your typical twenty-five-year old.

Something else not typical? Johanna is battling breast cancer.  

Spending the summer with Johanna, Finn learns what it means to really care for someone on all levels- physically and emotionally.  Johanna is young, only in her mid-twenties, but she is fighting an all-too-often fatal disease.  Yet she always has a smile on her face.  She and Finn set out to plant a garden in his yard, something Johanna has always wanted.  Also something Finn is awful at;  he’s got the blackest thumb in the world!  But working with Johanna opens his small world to new ideas and made him braver.  Johanna constantly encourages him and tries to make him see how awesome he really is.  She even manages to set him up on a date or two!

At the same time, Finn and Matthew vow to raise enough money to sponsor Johanna in the breast cancer triathlon she hopes to compete in before the summer is over.  Even though the two friends can’t imagine Johanna competing (she can barely get out of bed some days), they move outside their comfort zone to raise enough funds.  For Finn, this means making presentations to groups of people.  Before he knows it, he’s talked to 100x more people than he planned to during the summer.  

I don’t know how to put into words what I think about this book.  It is a must-read and a much-needed book.  Breast cancer is so prevalent these days, yet there is very little of it in middle grade literature.  When it is mentioned, it’s all-too-often in a “girl” book.  Paulsen takes a decidedly female topic, which affects the entire family, and presents in it a book that will appeal to both genders.  Too many of my students lives are touched by cancer and I know they will connect with this book.

 But don’t think this is a depressing book because it is about cancer.  It’s also a funny book that will have you laughing at loud.  Like when Finn and Matt are camping at the arboretum and get lost!  Or when Grandpa announces he is moving in with his new girlfriend!  There’s a certain feeling of joy that jumps between the pages of the book.  Johanna lives every day to the fullest and you can’t help but be inspired by her.  Her joy is contagious and even Finn is affected.  It spreads to his father, his classmates, and eventually the whole town.  Paulsen has crafted a testament to the importance of community and friendship in today’s world.

This is a must-have for any middle school or high school library.  As always, Paulsen packs a powerful punch.  And I am now an official member of my classroom’s “Paulsen Posse”!

Be sure to check back tomorrow for an interview with Gary Paulsen!




Review copy provided by the publisher.

Meeting Miss 405 by Lois Peterson

Tansy does not need a sitter.  She is certainly more than capable of taking care of herself after school, especially since she used to take care of herself and her mom.  At least, that’s what she thinks.  Unfortunately, her Dad firmly believes she needs a sitter while he is at work.  Hence Miss 405, Stella, is recruited to watch Tansy after school.

Tansy has a lot going on in Meeting Miss 405 .  Her main worry is the reason she needs a sitter in the first place- her mom has been diagnosed with depression and is staying with Grandpa until she feels better.  Tansy’s dad works long hours and is worried about her staying alone after school.  Plus there is Devin, the bully at school who keeps saying Tansy’s mom is in the nuthouse, Devin’s life-threatening peanut allergy that has completely ruined every lunch Tansy could bring to school, and a host of other worries floating through her mind at any given time.  Plus, Miss Stella is weird, or so Tansy thinks.

Meeting Miss 405 is a short book, but it deals with a lot of heavy material.  Tansy’s mom is struggling with depression and it has affected the entire family.  Not sure what to think, Tansy oscillates between anger and pity, all while missing her mom terribly.  Dad is struggling to keep it all together and Tansy slowly realizes that he is feeling much like her, only as a grown-up he isn’t as free to show it.  And then there is Miss Stella.  She reminds me a bit of the audacious Somerset sisters in Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. Not at all who she seems to be in the beginning, she serves as a stabilizing factor in Tansy’s life.  Wise and gentle, she also tells it like it is, all while helping Tansy to slow down and live in the moment while forgetting her worries.  

Full of thought-provoking issues, this was a novel I fully enjoyed.  One of my favorite aspects was that the book didn’t wrap everything up in a neat little package at the end.  Tansy’s mom is depressed, which isn’t something that magically goes away, and Lois Peterson makes that clear.  In today’s world, too many of our students struggle with depression in their family and this is the first intermediate book that I have seen realistically deal with the topic.

I really enjoyed the book, and honestly didn’t expect to.  From the cover and the back copy, it seemed like a book for very young readers.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was very deep and thought-provoking.  Orca Book Publishers should really be marketing this as more of a high-low novel, as the plot revolves around some heady issues but the text is at an accessible level.  I have a handful of readers this year who will really enjoy this book immensely and actually be able to comprehend it without struggling.   My only issue is that the bottom front cover includes the copy “Orca Young Readers”.  I think a lot of intermediate kids will be turned off by this, because it makes the novel seem like a “baby” book.  Hopefully, I will be able to sway my struggling readers to read this title!


*This review reflects my opinion and not those of the Cybils Middle Grade panel as a whole.