Reviews /

Good Boy

Authored by Mal Peet
Illustrated by Emma Shoard
Published by Barrington Stoke

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Good Boy is a beautiful book by Mal Peet that, through a simple but profound narrative and stunning illustrations, take us on a journey that examines the nature of fear and courage.

The book tells the story of Sandie Callan, who we first meet as a nine-year-old who is having a recurring nightmare in which a snarling black dog visits her. A solution is found to this in the form of her pet dog, Rabbie, whose presence in her life keeps the bad black dog at bay. Gradually the black dog disappears, Sandie grows up, and life moves on. But later, while Sandie is away at university, the black dog returns. It stalks her once more until, one day, she has to come face to face with it and see what she is made of.

I loved this book. The narrative itself is quite simple which leaves plenty of ‘reader space’ to enjoy the incredible imagery of both the text and the illustrations as well as examine the thought-provoking underlying theme of fear and anxiety and how we deal with that. The opening chapter describes the nightmare that Sandie is being visited by; it is written in the second person, which makes you feel like you are the one experiencing the nightmare. ‘You are walking down the garden path. You are wearing strange and heavy clothes. Your hands explore them but do not recognise them. It’s very dark but your feet know the way’. Even if you have not experienced this kind of dream/ nightmare, the chapter so powerfully evokes that sense of discomfort and nervous anticipation building to panic that you can’t help but feel it and possibly recognise its equivalent in your own life. The rest of the short story covers Sandie’s life from 9 years old to early adulthood and portrays a sense of both how we change and how we stay the same. Emma Shoard’s incredible illustrations cleverly echo the main events of the text as well drawing out the emotions and themes through her spectacular and subtle use of shapes, shading and colour.

Good Boy would be a great read for less enthusiastic readers in lower secondary and potentially mature readers at the top end of the primary school. It is a short read that could be read in its entirety fairly quickly. The relative simplicity of the narrative and the grammatical structures make it an accessible read, yet it has moments of powerful tension, rich imagery and sophisticated themes. Peet’s clever use of figurative language and other narrative devices (similes, metaphors, precise vocabulary to create setting and atmosphere, short – sometimes a single word, sometimes fractured – sentences) would make for rich exploration. As would the themes touched on through the story: a child being plagued by a recurring nightmare to depression, fear, anxiety, violence, social deprivation.

Good Boy is a book that should be read in advance by the teacher and carefully considered in terms of how it might need handling and discussing with individual children as there are some big themes. Personally, I loved this book and thought it could make an excellent class text.