Margarita Engle, illustrated by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov
I started out reading all of the 2015-2016 Texas Bluebonnet Award nominees with the best intentions. Summer reading derailed part of the reading, and now, our copies of the books are almost always checked out. Which reminds me…I need to start on the 2016-2017 list earlier (maybe right away), although I am still going to try and read all of this year’s nominees. Anyway, my most recent read: Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle. Of all the books I’ve read so far, this one generated some of the most complex emotions. I alternately loved and hated it, but it’s definitely one not to miss.
Summary: When Tony’s mother is sent to jail for dog fighting, he goes to live with a great uncle he didn’t even know he had. He is so used to fear and anger from his old life that he is very hesitant of this new one, made even harder because there is nothing in common between the two worlds. With the patience of his uncle and his uncle’s search-and-rescue dog, Gabe, Tony slowly learns that there is good to be found in the world, often in unexpected places.
What I Liked: This book has a beautiful plot. Tony’s story is heartbreaking, and yet all too realistic. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of how many Tony’s might be out there without a loving uncle to save them. I also loved the use of two perspectives: both that of Tony and of Gabe. While Tony’s segments teach us about his struggles to embrace his new life and to find trust and love again, Gabe’s narration provides us deeper insight into the complexity of this struggle. Gabe’s simple happiness provides the perfect foil to Tony’s emotional turmoil, and through his dedication to loving Tony and proving that happiness exists, we can easily see Tony begin to open his heart again. What I think I loved best about this book is that the emotions are raw and real. Yes, there is happiness and love. But there is also anger, and fear, and resentment. Engle does not shy away from any emotion, and has a more realistic, meaningful story because of it.
What I Didn’t Like: At first, I wasn’t thrilled that this book was written entirely in free-verse poetry. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but from the book’s summary and even the cover, I guess I was anticipating action-packed chapters. Which, to be fair, this book does provide. While I initially thought that having the book written in such a poetic format did a disservice to its plot, in reality, I think it provided for a sense of drama and intrigue that focused on the emotions in a way that more traditional writing might not have allowed. While it did take some getting used to, I didn’t find reading poetry to be nearly as distracting as I thought it would be. My only other complaint would be with Gabe’s chapters. While I love his as a foil for Tony’s emotions, at times I thought that he was included too often and without offering anything additional to the plot, as though he were merely repeating ideas from previous chapters.
Overall Feeling: When I started reading this book, I thought that I would hate it. By the time I finished reading it, I loved it. It was actually one of my favorite titles that I’ve read from the list so far. This book has it all: emotion, character, drama, and intrigue. It addresses hard topics fairly, but without shying away from the realities of the situations. It forces you to think, and, more importantly, to feel Tony’s story as you read it. I will, however, admit that this book isn’t for everyone. The poetic writing style may be a turn-off for some readers and discourage them from fully enjoying the text. I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys realistic fiction or animal stories. However, given the complexity of the emotions described and some of the situations Tony encounters, I would recommend this title to the older end of the Bluebonnet audience from a maturity standpoint. Still, this is one you absolutely MUST read from this year’s list.