HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Mountain Dog
Author: Margarita Engle
Illustrators: Aleksey and Olga Ivanov
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co., 2013
Related website: http://www.mackids.com (publisher)
Language level: 2
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 8 and up
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Engle, Margarita. Mountain Dog (published in 2013 by Henry Holt and Company LLC Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, 175 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10010). How does a young boy who’s spent his whole life in the big city learn to cope with living in mountainous wilderness? Eleven and a half, almost twelve, year old Tonio, or Tony, lives in Los Angeles, CA, with his mother, who as a young woman had come to the United States on a raft but fell in with some mean people who used drugs and dogfights as cruel ways to make money. She even had Tony keeping the books for the dogfights, but she got caught and now she’s in prison. So he must go live with his great uncle or tio, Leonilio, who is a park ranger along the Pacific Coast Trail high in the remote Sierra Nevada mountains and whose chocolate lab dog, Gabe, works in Search And Rescue. Tony and Gabe become good friends.
Tony will be going to an old style, three room mountain school with grades six through eight together in one class. Will he be able to make any other friends? Will the scars from his troubled past begin to heal? Is there anything Gabe can do to help? I think that the book contains a good story, but I must admit that I grow weary of continually reading modern youth fiction which pictures nearly every family in some way or another as dysfunctional, some quite severely. Yes, sigh, I realize that situations like those in the book do occur. The author, whose relatives who came to the country on a raft and whose husband is a Search and Rescue Dog handler, wrote, “The characters in Mountain Dog are imaginary, but the story was inspired by a happy, dog-loving, mountain-dwelling boy in the foster care system, who told me that in his ‘other life, there were pit bulls.’” Someone noted, “There aren’t a lot of books out there for children of incarcerated parents.” Maybe, after all, that’s a good thing for which to be thankful.
As to language, a couple of references to animal “poop and pee” are found, but no cursing or profanity is used. At age twelve, Tony notes that his new friend Gracie is “starting to act as if she likes me in a teenage way that makes me feel dizzy.” And there is dancing at a party. On the other hand, belief in God is mentioned, and Tio takes Tony to church services, although some believers might look a little askance at a few of the activities conducted by “the Cowboy Church.” Margarita Engle, whose The Surrender Tree was a Newbery Honor book and whose The Wild Book was reviewed here previously, is first and foremost a poet, and the tale of Tony and Gabe, told in alternating chapters by boy and dog, is written in blank verse. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but some children might have a little difficulty reading it since it is not in standard paragraph form. If that’s no problem, or if one can wade through it anyway, the reader will find a book with many good qualities and an ultimately satisfying conclusion. Also, a lot of interesting information about search and rescue dogs and about life in the woods is found.