Tragedy comes in many shapes and sizes, and Elson portrays some of the sadness in children’s lives in this expertly empathetic book, whilst managing to provide enough uplift and hope by way of the power of friendship, animal kindness, and community.
Marcus is large for his age, and dealing with being an outsider at school because of his size, as well as struggling with difficult family circumstances, including a father suffering from depression and a mother who has run away. Delilah, small for her age and new to the area, is grief-stricken over her father’s death, and also coming to terms with how to deal with her mother’s grief and anxiety. Together, they form a strong bond over their love for dogs.
When Marcus discovers an unnamed dog in the empty house next door, the pair become caught up in the seedy undercover trade of puppy farms, and it isn’t long before their friendship and survival is put to the test.
With alternating first-person narratives (in different fonts to help a young reader), this is both an engaging, and satisfying mystery, drawing attention to the plight of illegal pet breeding and sales, but also capturing the stark emotions and difficulties that some young children face in the wake of difficult family situations. Elson excels at understanding the children’s actions and motivations, but also at drawing out those things that can help – patience, trustworthy and empathetic adults, and a truly caring friendship.
Young readers with a love for dogs will be attracted by the premise and the cover, but should be warned that there are distressing details inside, which may prove nightmare-inducing for sensitive children. But there is plenty within to rejoice in too, with glimpses of sparkling humour and cheer. The secondary characters are particularly well drawn, from Nana Sparrow, who runs a fruit and vegetable stall and deserves a book of her own, to Delilah’s angst-ridden mother, and Marcus’s patient and long-suffering teachers.
Elson shows how family can come in all guises, and that sometimes family can be formed from strangers met along the way. A sense of belonging is key for children, and despite the dangers and losses in these children’s lives, Elson shows how adults on the periphery can make a big difference. Rich cultural backgrounds and a sense of place are also neatly embedded in the story, and this leads to a fully-rounded heartfelt book, with a reminder of the solace and comfort animals can give.