For regular readers of this blog it is well-known but for new visitors it might be news. Dogs are my favorite people in the world. Yes, you read correctly. To me they reside in the realm of people but are more like angels in their purpose. The place in my heart for dogs is huge, right next to my affection for storytelling, books and reading. Until the end of last November a joyful chocolate Labrador retriever, Xena, was my sole companion for more than fifteen years.
Missing her is tangible. Believing she has walked into a room, I still quickly turn to look. Maxi's Secrets (Or, What You Can Learn From A Dog) (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC, August 23, 2016) written by Lynn Plourde with a cover illustration by Maira Kalman offers us a look at life as dogs live. It reminds us how fortunate we are they agree to walk alongside us.
Let's get this part over with---it's no secret.
My dog, Maxi, dies.
When soon-to-be-fifth grader Timminy talks it's with unabashed truth. You get this way when you've gone through life as the shortest person your age and know it's not going to change. Timminy and his parents have recently moved from a large city to a small country town; both his dad and mom have new jobs. To ease this change for him, they've told him he can get a dog.
Getting a dog is not as high on Timminy's list of priorities as is surviving his first day, week, month and year in the same middle school with his dad as assistant principal but it's love at first sight, an instant knowledge you have found your soulmate, when Timminy first sees the Great Pyrenees puppy. It doesn't happen right away but soon Timminy and his parents believe Maxi is deaf. A trip to the vet confirms it.
Timminy is right in his assumption about navigating middle school. Who keeps shutting him inside lockers? Who puts the booster seat on his cafeteria lunch spot? It is difficult as the assistant principal's son and as the shortest student in school, but he gets help from others with different challenges and abilities. On either side of his house live neighbors, fellow students, Abby, a sixth grader, the only blind and African American student in the school, and Rory, a seventh grade student Timminy names the Beast of the East.
At the center is Maxi offering comfort when necessary, hearing without ears, bringing out the best in all who meet her and being the bridge in the rough spots of growing friendships. During a harrowing evening in early winter, in what could have been a disaster, Maxi's greatest triumph signals the events leading to her premature passing. Maxi, like all dogs, reminds us of the quality of a life well-lived; what is left behind is the greatest of gifts.
In fifty-one succinct chapters Lynn Plourde, through Timminy's voice, brings all the anxieties of middle school life to the forefront. Each person in his world is striving to find their place, they are trying to be individuals but fit into the greater whole. Through Plourde's writing techniques we find ourselves cheering for success in their struggles and feel compassion when they fall short. At the end of each chapter, an episode, Timminy closes with a life secret, usually revealed through Maxi. These secrets are profound to the extent you will be looking for parallels in your own life, with or without a dog.
As readers we know and understand Timminy's thought processes. In the dialogue between the characters and Timminy talking with Maxi, even though she is deaf, each personality becomes complete and compiled of more intricate parts than we initially imagined. The adults, the parents, school personnel, the doctors, emergency responders and even the FedEx driver, are the kind more prevalent in real life than usually depicted in stories. Here are some sample passages taken from the ARC.
Her dried dog slobber is everywhere too---like a hundred tattoos she branded my room with so I wouldn't forget her.
No way I'd forget her.
When I start to breathe again, I realize having Maxi in my life will always be a bigger deal than losing Maxi. Her tail still thumps-thumps-thumps in my heart.
I made Mom a bunch of kid promises. "I'll give her a bath twice a week. I'll brush her teeth so you can't tell where her white fur ends and her white teeth begin."
Then I really piled it on. "Puhleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! You moved me to this new town where I'm all alone and have no friends. This pup is all I've got."
Dad looked at Mom. "Give it up, Lynda. You've already lost this one."
"Thanks, Dad," I said grateful that I didn't have to turn on the tears. I would have if I had to.
Her mom added "A big furry dog peeking out from the plants as she tries to cool down...Abby knows what those words mean, but she can't feel the joke. You have to use hearing or taste or touch or smell words so Abby can understand in a way that makes sense to her senses."
"How do I do that?"
Mrs. Winslow said, "You could say something like Maxi is a loud, screeching note of rock music in the middle of a soft symphony."
Abby grinned. "That's pretty good, Mom. See, Timminy, that lets me know how out of place, what a surprise Maxi was when you saw her. You try."
"Hmmmm, let me think..."
Abby waited, Mrs. Winslow waited, and Maxi didn't care as she slept in the shade.
I gave it another try. "Maxi is hiding like...a...a marshmallow in the middle of a big bowl of broccoli."
Abby laughed. "Not bad. You might get this blind talk with practice."
I smiled. "Practice" meant I'd get to see Abby again.
A new friend is like a wrapped present---you're not sure what's inside, but you can't wait to find out.
When you begin as Lynn Plourde does with Maxi's Secrets (Or What You Can Learn From A Dog) you're not sure you can continue but if you do, when you read the first secret
You can learn a lot from a dog you love.
at the bottom of page two, you know she'll be telling the best kind of story. It's a tale of pure love in all its facets, the love of a dog for her boy, the love of a boy for his dog, the love of new friends and the love of family. After reading this powerful book twice, I know you'll want and need more copies on your professional shelves. You'll want a copy for your personal shelves too. Each secret, each chapter, is a guide. They are gifts straight from the heart of a dog.
To learn more about Lynn Plourde and her other work please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. You can read the first four chapters at the publisher's website. Lynn Plourde speaks about The Secrets Behind 'Max's Secrets' at Publishers Weekly ShelfTalker. She is also a guest writer at the Nerdy Book Club in revealing the cover for this title.