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.
Filed under: reluctant readers, reviews, struggling readers | Tagged: breast cancer, gary paulsen, middle school reads, notes from the dog | 6 Comments »