I’ve been having this girl under my tutelage practice reading aloud a book I really liked in elementary school, The Junkyard Dog by Erika Tamar. I really just picked it for her because the main character is around her age but I found the book to be better than I remember.
We just wrapped up chapter four so I’ll recapitulate what happened so far. The world of Katie Lawrence is small. She lives in the projects with her recently married mom Mary Ann Grady née Lawrence and Jim Grady. Although Katie met Jim Grady before he moved in, most of their interactions involved a lot of Mom in the middle. Katie avoids the “company that never [goes] home” when she can. While taking the long way home from school, Katie meets a mistreated junkyard dog and is immediately attached. She decides to sneak him food and water but gets caught. Jim Grady meets the dog with her and they have their first real conversation.
All this I remember. What I didn’t remember, aside from a forgivable abundance of “But” sentences*, were all the undertones. The writer describes the narrow perspective of an eleven year old while conveying all the emotions that Katie’s not thinking in words. In addition, Katie’s observations contain glimpses of what’s going on in the big picture without ostentatiously pointing out all the hints. Katie and younger readers don’t even notice but older readers are able to appreciate how the details make the book cohesive.
Since I’ve been having my student read it aloud and ask me about terms she doesn’t understand, I’ve also noticed the word choice. Tamar doesn’t use a flashy vocabulary but she colors up the descriptions while keeping the dialogue to basic vernacular with some variation by character, especially for Jim Grady.
We’re talking about a kid’s book, here. It’s only four chapters of a book I read in third grade.
Katie readily acts on her sympathy for the dog despite being brought up to avoid confrontation and simultaneously deals with her inward turmoil about the changes that result from Mom’s marriage. There is no one to walk her through what’s going on in her life. Mom’s a busy, sensitive woman, the new guy isn’t really her dad yet, and she really doesn’t have any friends who understand her as her relationships are at the level that could be expected from a kid her age. Katie can’t be expected to have the maturity and insight of an adult, nor to behave like a kid who has the environmental stability that comes with having both parental figures. All things considered, she’s dealing with her feelings remarkably well.
The book introduces the characters, sketches out the background, and launches the story at the same time.
Tamar uses interesting and appropriate wording and doesn’t screw up her homonyms.
What does today’s list of “Teen Reads” tell you about today’s readers? Books for 13–19 year olds should be better than books for 8–12 so you know something’s up when the situation is the reverse. Then again, the books that my little sister brings home from the book fair are hardly quality reads.
The Junkyard Dog is by far not the most awesome children’s novel ever but it’s pretty steady, which is more than I can ask of most underage novels written in the past few years. I’d recommend it to adults as well as their kids because there are some aspects that only people who have lived a little longer can appreciate. I read it several times as an upper elementary student, going from looking up to Katie to seeing eye-to-eye with her as I re-read the book. Reviewing it now, I have more perspective and I’m starting to read into Jim Grady and the author instead of Katie. Viewing Katie’s world from a different angle opened my eyes. It was like looking back on an old friendship. I admit I got a little excited. Do you have a book that does that for you? I guess what I’m trying to say is: GO READ THAT BOOK.
*Do let’s remember that The Junkyard Dog is a contemporary children’s novel.