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Every once in a great awhile a book comes from a new writer that makes me say, "Wow!". It's even more impressive when it is a children's book, and triply so when it deals with the potentially schmaltzy topic of sad hearted animals. Newcomer Peter Howe manages to pull off this mean feat, and I have to say I salute him for it. Not since reading Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan have I felt such sincerity in a story told from the perspective of animals. Mr Howe makes the reader believe these really are the things that dogs think and say between them, and those of us who have known and loved dogs will recognise the behaviours he so ably describes.
Sadly, he also describes the lack of caring that far too many of our own species displays , especially when it comes to our four-legged friends. Young Waggit is a cherished puppy until a new baby arrives, and his female owner over reacts at the puppy coming anywhere near the new baby. So it is that one day his master takes him for a walk in the park for the first time, and also for the first time, plays ball with him. Let off the lead, Waggit is excited at his new found freedom and the joy of the ball game, until he looks around and discovers he has lost his master. Soon, he realises his master lost him on purpose, but the faithful puppy keeps looking and hoping for his return. Encountering the leader of a pack of other abandoned dogs, he is taken into their team, and soon learns to be wary of those who could do harm, and of rival groups of dogs.
The pack of dogs work as a team, and it is a cohesive family unit, but learning what love truly is makes his heart tug all the more at the memory of someone feeding him good dog food, a scratch on the belly, and warm nights inside. It is this that proves his undoing when he encounters a young woman eating sandwiches by the lake, and accepts tidbits from her, for his return to see her day after day it leads to his capture by the dog wardens.What happens next is as much a testament to the big heart of a small dog yearning for love as it is to the kindness of good human beings, proving that happily ever after really is within grasp.
The book is lovingly dedicated to the memory of his own dog Roo who inspired the book, which will not go unnoticed by young readers as that fact is splashed upon the back cover and on an illustrated dedication page. This is sure to tug at the heartstrings of the young reader, as will the story of Waggit and the other stray dogs, so be aware that if your child is very sensitive, this may not be the best read for them without preparation. For your average child though, it makes a great read, with short chapters perfect for reading one at a time at bedtime with lots of exciting small adventures, not too much danger, and a great happy ending. The vocabulary is simple enough for a confident child who has already mastered the early reader books and who can read without hesitation. The pen and ink illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are reminiscent of Garth William's drawings for Charlotte's Web, adding charm and enticing the reader to find out what will follow. All in all, one of the best recently published works for children I have seen in some time.
A version of this review first appeared at The Book Bag.