|The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Ruth Ng|
|Summary: Atmospheric adventure story that might be a bit too exciting for bedtimes, but raises some excellent discussions about environmental issues.|
|Buy? yes||Borrow? yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: May 2019|
|Publisher: Old Barn Books|
|External links: Author's website|
Set in a dystopian Australia, this is the story of Ella and Emery and their dogs travelling across the outback together. A red fungus has wiped out all the crops and grasses, and with the food chain grinding to a halt, society is collapsing. Ella's mum has been gone for a long time - she left for work one day and then never came home. Ella and her half brother Emery have been living at home with their dad and their dogs, hoping for the best, but one day their dad decides to go out and try to find Ella's mum. When he also fails to return, Emery decides that their best chance of survival is to set out with the dogs to travel across the outback to his grandfather's house where, he believes, there will still be food and a safe place for them to live until their father can find them again.
I sometimes struggle with adventure stories like this when children don't act in a way that seems believably childlike, or their adventure passes beyond the realms of possibility, but I didn't have this issue here. The situations Ella and Emery find themselves in were terrifying, and difficult, but each time I believed their responses and reactions, because they felt realistic. So when Emery is hurt by two men on motorbikes, I absolutely believed Ella's attempts to fend these men off, because she is fighting for her life and her half-brother's life too. Their actions, such as killing animals to feed the dogs, or smashing lights on bikes to stop the bad men from seeing them, are their desperate attempts to survive.
Emery, as the older brother, initially takes the lead. He's the one who exchanges Ella's last tin of anzac biscuits for a dog sled (on wheels!), and he manages to find two more dogs for them to use as well. He uses a map, and figures out a route, sensibly trying to keep them off the roads and hidden from plain sight. Yet when he's injured it is his young sister Ella who must step up to the role of leader, and she does so admirably. She doesn't want to be doing any of the things she is doing, but she knows she must get her brother to safety, and take care of their dogs on the way as without them they can't get there. She has already learned from Emery on the trip, and she keeps thinking to herself of her father's words, that when the world turns upside down, they must learn to stand on their heads. Ella is a great heroine, showing her fears and struggles, and yet never giving up.
Whilst this is a children's book, I found it exciting to read as a grown up. I did wonder, at some moments, if it might be a little too much for some readers. The dangers of the outback are real, and the dystopian world they're living in does feel very scary, and a place where they don't know who they can trust, and who they can't. It would be a good chapter book for those who are a little more reluctant to read, because the chapters are short, and the story so engaging that you feel compelled to read just a little more, and then just a little more again. The language isn't too difficult, and is probably pitched towards the 9 to 12 age range, but the subject means it is also very readable for older children, and adults too.
It's a book that would encourage some discussion afterwards, so would work as a class read in a school. The devastation that would ensue from crop failure is very obvious, and it felt a painfully close to the bone topic in our world today. It doesn't preach, however, and you don't feel as if you're reading something educational because over and above any message, it is a good adventure story.
I liked Ella a great deal, and I liked the developing relationship between Ella and Emery as we see that they overcome their differences, and the fact that although they have the same father and they have different mothers, they are still family, and belong to each other. The dogs also feature largely in the story, pulling them loyally on the sled across the dusty landscape, eating the remaining cans of sardines and then surviving on stringy kangaroos, stinky possums and even a bit of snake! They become characters themselves, and you are rooting for all of them to survive all the way to Emery's grandfather's house. This is an exciting read, and highly recommended.
Further reading suggestion: You might also like to read the author's first book How to Bee.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble at Amazon.com.
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