An engaging slice of history that should appeal to young canine enthusiasts while demonstrating the solid use of primary...


A children’s book presents the true story of a dog with unexplained abilities who delighted audiences in the 1930s.

In this work, Figley (Santa’s Underwear, 2016, etc.) introduces the Llewellin setter known as Jim the Wonder Dog, in honor of his phenomenal ability to understand and answer questions. The author follows Jim from puppyhood—he was a runt left with Missouri hotel owner Sam VanArsdale, who first valued his surprising skill at bird hunting—to the monument that still stands at his grave. Although he helped VanArsdale flush out thousands of birds, Jim’s defining talent was his ability to answer questions with a degree of comprehension few would expect in a dog, identifying trees by species, pointing out a guest staying in a particular room, and indicating which man in a group had the most money in his pocket. Jim’s abilities brought him local fame, though VanArsdale turned down both Hollywood endorsements and attempts to profit on Jim’s ability to pick winners at the racetrack. Although the book addresses the skepticism that some contemporaries expressed, Figley has chosen to take the stories of Jim, drawn largely from a locally produced documentary, at face value. An author’s note explores the value of such oral histories as primary sources and provides guidance for young readers on evaluating the material. The account avoids speculating about the causes of Jim’s talents, and while readers may wish for a tidy explanation, that decision ensures the narrative follows the historical record. Figley’s prose is matter-of-fact (“They hunted all day. Jim performed like a bird-dog genius over and over again”), and the story moves at an appropriate pace, keeping readers engaged without adding artificial tension to a simple plot. The work does an excellent job of drawing attention to a little-known piece of history without overstating its importance, giving Jim credit for intriguing and amusing many observers during a difficult time without claiming he changed the world.

An engaging slice of history that should appeal to young canine enthusiasts while demonstrating the solid use of primary sources.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-937054-41-0

Page Count: 72

Publisher: The RoadRunner Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Themes of freedom and responsibility twine between the lines of this short but heavy novel from the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). Three months after his mother's death, Rob and his father are living in a small-town Florida motel, each nursing sharp, private pain. On the same day Rob has two astonishing encounters: first, he stumbles upon a caged tiger in the woods behind the motel; then he meets Sistine, a new classmate responding to her parents' breakup with ready fists and a big chip on her shoulder. About to burst with his secret, Rob confides in Sistine, who instantly declares that the tiger must be freed. As Rob quickly develops a yen for Sistine's company that gives her plenty of emotional leverage, and the keys to the cage almost literally drop into his hands, credible plotting plainly takes a back seat to character delineation here. And both struggle for visibility beneath a wagonload of symbol and metaphor: the real tiger (and the inevitable recitation of Blake's poem); the cage; Rob's dream of Sistine riding away on the beast's back; a mysterious skin condition on Rob's legs that develops after his mother's death; a series of wooden figurines that he whittles; a larger-than-life African-American housekeeper at the motel who dispenses wisdom with nearly every utterance; and the climax itself, which is signaled from the start. It's all so freighted with layers of significance that, like Lois Lowry's Gathering Blue (2000), Anne Mazer's Oxboy (1995), or, further back, Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead (1965), it becomes more an exercise in analysis than a living, breathing story. Still, the tiger, "burning bright" with magnificent, feral presence, does make an arresting central image. (Fiction. 10-12)

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7636-0911-0

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2001

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Troubled teen meets totemic catalyst in Mikaelsen’s (Petey, 1998, etc.) earnest tribute to Native American spirituality. Fifteen-year-old Cole is cocky, embittered, and eaten up by anger at his abusive parents. After repeated skirmishes with the law, he finally faces jail time when he viciously beats a classmate. Cole’s parole officer offers him an alternative—Circle Justice, an innovative justice program based on Native traditions. Sentenced to a year on an uninhabited Arctic island under the supervision of Edwin, a Tlingit elder, Cole provokes an attack from a titanic white “Spirit Bear” while attempting escape. Although permanently crippled by the near-death experience, he is somehow allowed yet another stint on the island. Through Edwin’s patient tutoring, Cole gradually masters his rage, but realizes that he needs to help his former victims to complete his own healing. Mikaelsen paints a realistic portrait of an unlikable young punk, and if Cole’s turnaround is dramatic, it is also convincingly painful and slow. Alas, the rest of the characters are cardboard caricatures: the brutal, drunk father, the compassionate, perceptive parole officer, and the stoic and cryptic Native mentor. Much of the plot stretches credulity, from Cole’s survival to his repeated chances at rehabilitation to his victim being permitted to share his exile. Nonetheless, teens drawn by the brutality of Cole’s adventures, and piqued by Mikaelsen’s rather muscular mysticism, might absorb valuable lessons on anger management and personal responsibility. As melodramatic and well-meaning as the teens it targets. (Fiction. YA)

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2001

ISBN: 0-380-97744-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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