M. H. Herlong. Viking, 2012. (Library copy) I nominated this fabulous book for a Cybils in Middle Grade Fiction. Li'l T is a 12 year old boy living in New Orleans with his grandpa, mom, dad, little sister and baby brother. They don't have a lot but they are getting by. Li'l T wants more than anything to have a dog, but his parents say they can't afford it. When his dad accidentally hits a dog with his car on the way to church, the family gets help from their church community to pay for the vet bills and nurse the dog back to health. "Buddy", as Li'l T names him, turns out to be the most wonderful dog in the world. He has to lose one of his legs and learn to walk all over again on three, but he has a heart of gold. Kind, wise, gentle, affectionate and loving, he quickly becomes a member of the family. Li'l T starts working mowing lawns in order to pay for his food. When Katrina hits the family evacuates and has to leave Buddy behind, along with some of their neighbors, simple because they don't have room in their car for anyone else.
Besides the relationship that Li'l T has with Buddy, I really like how this book shows the strength of a father's love for a boy. Not only his father, but his grandfather, who lives with them for the first half of the book, has a major impact on Li'l T's ability to survive and thrive no matter how hard it gets. The discipline, wisdom, mentoring examples and loving humor of both of the elders are paramount in Li'l T's growth and development. Grandpa T is always watching out for Li'l T and knows just when to step in with the right thing to say. Junior T, his father, is there to support him, guide him, protect him, correct him when necessary, and inspire him to take up the hard work of making one's way in the world. I put this book on the very top of my growing list of Fabulous Fathers in New Middle Grade Fiction. (Take a look at that post for me, would you? And make some suggestions for other books to add if you can.)
The writer vividly presents the tragic and devastating aftermath of Katrina, bringing us to the shelter in Mississippi that Li'l T's family inhabits until they can get an apartment. Others in their community suffer more, by losing family members, sinking into despair and drugs, or dying in the floods. This could be an overwhelmingly grim story, but because of the strength of Li'l T's loving family and his intense connection with Buddy, we cheer them on as we are drawn into the force of their struggle and rejoice in their triumphs. This is one of those classic dog stories that you never forget. Li'l T never gives up on loving Buddy, and in the end we see him overcome every obstacle to living a life truly from the heart.
There are a few parts of the story that might be a bit much for the younger elementary audience. There is some drug activity described, the parents discipline style could be considered too physical, and by the end Li'l T is 14 with a street knowledge to match. But for kids living in urban environments or older tweens, I think the dose of reality balanced with vibrant examples of honor, love, faithfulness, the value of hard work and a good education is priceless. I love this book and highly recommend it!