Rebel is Tom’s dog and Tom is Rebel’s boy. They live a perfect life on a sheep farm. But the King is demanding more and more tax, and his guardsmen are cruel and violent. When Tom meets the leaders of the Reds, he decides to leave home to join the uprising leaving Rebel at home. What should Rebel do?

We hear the story through the words of Rebel himself. it’s not all that unusual to have a story told in the voice of a dog – Melvin Burgess did it in Lady: My Life as a Bitch for example, but I really can’t remember a dog who is as convincingly doglike and so entirely charming as Rebel. I was rooting for him from the first, ecstatic, chapter onwards. I laughed out loud more than once, as passengers on my train out of Paddington will tell you. I loved the section when his life flashes before his eyes and one of the moments is, ‘that time I found a piece of chicken on the floor’.

Rebel is a funny, sweet natured dog who is entirely content on the farm and absolutely not the sort of dog who ought to set out on a quest. Just as Bilbo Baggins isn’t the sort of character who should go adventuring. Readers familiar with this sort of story will be looking out for the beats – leaving home, encountering a setback, finding a wise helper, facing the monster. While the beats are familiar, Montgomery is able to deliver them without it being contrived. This is a mark of real skill.

I am Rebel is a fast-paced adventure that rips along with no wasted words. It has plenty of jeopardy, excitement and real peril in a world which is close enough to our own to feel real but far enough away to be safe for a young reader. Along the way, as he desperately tries to catch up with Tom to bring him home and make everything right again, Rebel meets a cast of humans and other animals who all, one way and another, help us to think about the meaning and cost of ownership, loyalty, obedience and duty. This is very cleverly done – it’s never didactic but a clever adult co-reader, at home or at school, should be ready to have conversations around this subject area. What does it mean to own something? Does being loyal someone mean you have to do what they say? Do our responsibilities bind or free us?

Montgomery sets his story in a fictional world which might be ‘long, long ago’ or might be just last week. Farmers work with their hands, there are donkey carts on the roads and the king lives in a castle. But, then again, soldiers have rifles and there are chips and crisps on sale in the pub – so nothing is quite settled. Similarly, the geography feels like it could be Cumbria, Scotland, or somewhere else entirely. The place names – Unst, Connick, Drulter – don’t help much. Children can imagine this place to be as close to home or as far away as they need to. I can imagine a child’s hand up to say ‘I think I know where this story is really set’ while another consoles themselves that it’s all made up.

In the book dogs can talk to each other as well as to cats, sheep, wolves, pigs, donkeys and, movingly, field mice. Humans can’t understand them and the behaviour that the humans would observe is convincingly animal like. There is enough human and animal peril in the book to ensure that it isn’t ever too cutesy. I am sure that a classroom of boys and girls who thought they were a bit grown up for talking animals would have no trouble at all with Rebel talking to his companion Jaxon, or the lead wolf, or even Felix the Field Mouse. Think Watership Down more than Sylvanian Families.

I think this class would also allow the deep, deep love between Rebel and Tom and, later between Rebel and Jaxon. It is real love, never sentimental, fierce and deep. It has to be, because it has to matter when we ask – if you love somebody, do you have to set them free?

Ross Montgomery is the author of many books for children and young people – The Midnight Guardians was a favourite for me, as were The Christmas Dinner of Souls, Max and Me and Building Boy. To me, I am Rebel is his best yet and I hope to see it doing very well indeed. I think that many schools will find a place for I am Rebel in their chapter book sequence. I would put it in Year 4 in Summer term and expect it to set children up for a robust start to their Upper Key Stage 2 reading diet. I really cannot imagine a class who wouldn’t go crazy for this book or a teacher who will be able to get through the last chapter or two without crying. Fall in love with the lovely dog, stay for the adventure and be convinced by the really deep questions. There should be no doubt that Ross Montgomery is one of our very best writers for children today.

[note: I was relieved to see the note in tiny writing on the back cover stating that ‘No dogs die in this book’, you may choose to share or withhold this from your children.]