Boys Are Dogs by Leslie Margolis. Bloomsbury USA Children's Books. 2008. Brilliance Audio 2009. Reviewed from audiobook from Brilliance. Narrated by Ellen Grafton.
The Plot: Annabelle has moved to a new house. Because her mother has decided to move in with her new boyfriend. So now she has to go to a new school, a public middle school after years at an all girl's school. Also? Annabelle has a new puppy.
New house, new Mom's boyfriend, new school, new puppy, new friends, new boys. It's a lot to deal with and Annabelle does so -- sometimes gracefully, sometimes not, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes wholeheartedly, but always with humor and a unique, invidual outlook on life.
The Good: Annabelle is a terrific sixth grader. Boys are Dogs captures that perfect mix of excitement and fear over starting a new school in a new town where you know no one. Sometimes, it all goes wrong, like when the puppy eats Annabelle's back to school clothes. Other times, it all goes right, like when Rachel, a girl her age in her new neighborhood, invites Annabelle to eat lunch with Rachel and her friends. If you don't understand the importance of having someone to eat lunch with on the first day of a new school -- well, I can only assume you never had a first day at a new school.
Annabelle and her mother have always been a tight unit of two; the inclusion of Ted, Mom's boyfriend, is done both realistically but also, well -- in a nice way. While it's not easy and all Brady Bunch at the beginning, how refreshing to have a book where the grownups (Mom and Ted) act like, well, grown ups, thinking of Annabelle. Annabelle may not always agree, such as when she had to move away from her school and her two best friends.
A new school with boys... and this is where the book really kicks into gear. Whether it's because Annabelle had no father or brothers, or went to an all girl school, or is now a sixth grader in middle school (I know some teachers who really dislike middle schools), Annabelle has only just now encountered boys. This is not a book about tween romance. Annabelle is not boy crazy -- and before I continue, not every sixth grade girl is boy crazy and it's nice to see that reality reflected in a book. Sixth graders will like this book; but so, too, will younger kids.
Even if Annabelle wanted a boyfriend, the actions of the boys at this new school hardly scream "date me." They kick her chair, play practical jokes on her, call her Spanabelle and Spaz, hog the science equipment, ruin her homework, and I could go on and on. You know what is great about this book? No one ever says to Annabelle or the reader, "that boy is acting like that because he likes you." Hallelujah to at least one book that doesn't perpetuate the myth, "if a boy is mean or disrespectful it's because he likes you."
Annabelle puts up with it.... at first. But she has a secret weapon. Remember her clothes eating puppy? She's been reading how to train dogs. Annabelle puts two and two together and figures out she can train the boys to act nicer by treating them the way you treat a dog: speak firmly. Be strong. Be a leader. Trust me -- this works, not just for Annabelle, but also for the book. Because what is really happening is not that Annabelle is training boys like dogs; rather, Annabelle is learning to do what we want any child to do, girl or boy: she's learning to be assertive while being polite, to speak up for herself, to be strong, to not be pushed around.
Boys Are Dogs is also honest about friendship. It's a very realistic, sensitive look at Annabelle both finding new friendships and realizing that sometimes old friendships just don't survive a move.
One final honest word: maybe it was because Ellen Grafton did such a good, immediate job of narrating this book. Maybe because I'm over sensitive. But this book got me so mad! Mad at these boys who thoughtlessly treated others poorly. Mad at the teachers who didn't see it and didn't stop it. Oh, I know this is realistic. And I know an important point of this book is Annabelle growing and asserting herself and speaking up. And I know that readers will, hopefully, say to themselves "if someone calls me a name I don't like, I can tell them to stop. If someone teases me, I can stand up for myself."
But still. ARGH. I got so mad!!
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy