In this YA novel, a teenage girl learns life lessons about parents, puppies and puppy love.
Thirteen-year-old Julia, the protagonist of Ferguson Powers’ debut novel, is a pleasantly familiar archetype of young adult fiction: a girl on the cusp of adolescence who is precociously intelligent but, socially, a late bloomer. With her father serving overseas in the International Peace Forces and a workaholic mother who repeats the mantra “avoiding problems is better than having to solve them,” Julia devotes most of her time to her 8-year-old sister, Belinda, and when she can, observing wildlife to write about in the detailed log she maintains. The action starts with the arrival of a Portuguese water dog named Portia, whom the girls’ father has sent as a gift. When their mother leaves for a months long business trip, Julia and Belinda, with Portia in tow, go to spend the summer with their grandparents on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. In a series of episodic (and somewhat formulaic) adventures, the sisters train Portia, contend with bullying and get into plenty of trouble, all with the help of a neighbor boy, Mister Blue, whom their grandparents have encouraged them to befriend. Mister Blue, who is even shyer and stranger than Julia, ruffles her feathers at first—and the fact that his mother has recently died while serving in the National Guard does nothing to assuage her overwhelming worry about her father’s dangerous job. As their friendship deepens, however, Julia discovers that some people just may be as interesting as animals. Though Ferguson Powers’ writing is simple and declarative, her characters are three dimensional, and she uses the close third-person perspective to clever ends; when Julia meets Mister Blue, for instance, she reflects: “Probably he liked machines; most boys did.” Blunt and theatrical Belinda—who says aloud to her dolls at one point that “Julia worries enough for everybody”—is an especially funny character.
Heartwarming and humorous, a solid pick for young teen readers.