This is a beautiful book 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 she is visited by a snarling black dog. A solution is found to this in the form of her own 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 are not someone who has experienced this kind of dream/ nightmare, the chapter so strongly 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.
This would be a great read for upper junior readers and would be an excellent choice to engage emergent or less enthusiastic readers as well as those more confident. It is a short read that could be read in its entirety fairly quickly, but with a lot to take out from it. The relative simplicity of the narrative and the grammatical structures Mal Peet uses make it an accessible read, yet the book is also packed with 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 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. In my opinion, these are all presented in the narrative in a way that makes it suitable for a Year 5 and 6 class; however, this is definitely 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 think it could make an excellent class text.
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