August 06, 2009


Notes from the Dog. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

Born to Fly. By Michael Ferrari. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

     Plenty of books for teens and preteens are lightweight, but the lack of depth is by no means inevitable, as these new releases show. The prolific Gary Paulsen is especially good at packing a lot of drama into a small number of pages – the story in Notes from the Dog is told in just 132. This is a book about cancer, but it is not about the disease: it is about how the illness affects not only those who have it but also those who come into contact with them. The protagonist is Finn, a 14-year-old boy who relates well to his dog, Dylan, but not so well to human beings. This is a story set in summertime – the book is unusually serious for a summer release – and shows how Finn’s life is changed for the better when a graduate student named Johanna moves in next door. Johanna has breast cancer – but despite that and the difference in their ages, she and Finn form an immediate friendship. She pulls Finn into her world: he helps raise money for breast-cancer research, and he and his friend Matthew help take care of Johanna after her chemotherapy treatments. For his part, Finn pulls Johanna into his world, which is more loving and filled with caring people than Finn had previously realized. Johanna keeps sending Finn uplifting notes by giving them to Dylan to deliver; hence the book’s title. Johanna also plays matchmaker for Finn, and helps him re-connect with his father. This is all so glowingly positive that it is a little much to take – Johanna is nearly saintly in her goodness, for all that Paulsen makes it clear she is suffering from her illness. “Don’t question the miracles; they just might stop coming,” reads one note from Johanna to Finn, and the book is a series of little miracles, right up to a climactic race that Finn and Matthew win for Johanna, who cannot compete in it herself. The book is designed to make readers ages 12 and up shed a tear or two, and Paulsen is expertly manipulative in keeping the tone positive while making it clear that Johanna’s long-term prognosis is not good. The book’s flaw is that it is manipulative, dripping with so much sentimentality that some readers may find it hard to take, however good the cause (Paulsen appends a list of half a dozen Web sites to which readers can go for breast-cancer information). Notes from the Dog is enormously well-meaning, but pounds home its message a touch too fervently.

     Born to Fly, the first novel by Michael Ferrari, also suffers from formulaic elements – some intentional (Ferrari wanted to write an adventure story with a strong girl as protagonist) and some less so (subsidiary characters who are so two-dimensional that it is impossible to believe in them). Ferrari’s novel is set in World War II, and it tackles a lot of tough subjects: discrimination against Japanese-Americans, limitations on girls and women, spies, bigotry, deaths in wartime, the perversion of justice, and more. That’s a lot for a 205-page book to contain. The protagonist is 11-year-old Belinda “Bird” McGill, whose father is an airplane mechanic. Bird loves flying with him, and is ecstatic when her Rhode Island town’s airstrip is made into a military flight school after the Pearl Harbor attack brings the United States into the war. One part of the plot has Bird persuading an airman to let her enter a flight class, even though girls were not allowed to do such things at the time. Another plot element involves a Japanese-American boy named Kenji Fujita, with whom Bird becomes friends despite the blatant hostility toward him: the townspeople are sure he is a spy. Then there is a mysterious submarine that Bird and Kenji discover but that no one else believes is there and no one else ever sees; and there is a murder; and the dead man’s son, who happens to be the town bully, is absolutely sure that Kenji’s uncle, Tomo, is the killer; and there is a court scene, and Bird’s discovery of the real killer, and her capture by him, and eventually Bird in an airplane following the killer’s car to prevent him from committing an even worse act of terror. The seams of this plot (or these plots) do not always fit neatly together, and Bird’s eventual successful piloting adventure is really a bit over the top even for an adventure novel for preteens (the book is intended for ages 8-12). Ferrari certainly knows how to build excitement and how to make his central character appealing; and he can develop a scene carefully and realistically at times: the trial of Tomo, for example, is well done. If Born to Fly tries to do a few too many things for Ferrari to be able to pull them all together neatly, that may simply mean that this first-time author will create an even more effective book on his second try.

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