Freedom Pen by Dionna L. Mann (Pugalicious Press, September 2012)
(My review is from an ARC sent by the publisher.)
I consider myself a dog-lover, even though I haven't had a dog since childhood--despite the pleadings of my 9-year-old. (My wife is not so keen.) So I am always horrified when I hear stories where dogs (all animals, actually) are mistreated. And when animals are intentionally trained to be vicious--like being trained for dog fights--my blood boils.
Perhaps that is why this novella by debut author Dionna L. Mann spoke to me so strongly. Freedom Pen, set in rural Virginia, tells the story of Billy Morris who's "near to thirteen," and his younger sister, Sarah (also known to Billy as The Twerp.) They have gone to live with their aunt and uncle after their mother has been imprisoned for killing their abusive father. Uncle Jim takes Billy to a dog fight and decides to buy two puppies and have Billy train them to be fighters. Billy and Sarah recoil from this violence and make plans to hide the pups in the woods, in a place Sarah calls Freedom Pen. Will their plan be foiled, and will the pups be consigned to a life of fighting?
Things I liked:
The cover: C'mon guys, who could resist that cute little puppy on the cover? Just look at those eyes!
The language: Mann does an excellent job, both in dialogue and narrative, in finding just the right language for these characters and the setting in which they live. Here's an example, from when Billy is surprised by a wild turkey in the woods. (Frank is his uncle's friend.)
The turkey was as big as they come. It wore its brown and white wings like a cape. Its red wattle swung below its funny, little head, and it looked at me with its beady eyes as if it were surprised to see me. Then it changed direction and strutted out of sight. Good thing Frank's not here, I thought, or that plump bird would've ended up on somebody's plate for sure."
The satisfying character arc: A near-disaster changes the characters' relationships to one another. Uncle Jim realizes that there's more important things than breeding dogs for fighting, and Billy and Sarah come to appreciate one another without it all becoming too saccharine. (Those two will always tease and needle each other. Trust me--I have siblings.)
A strong message, without being didactic: This story has a message about kindness, both to animals and to fellow humans. Yet it never feels preachy. That's because Mann has her characters embody their emotions. For example, when Billy tries to persuade Sarah that fighting is in the pit bulls' blood, she shouts at him, "Bein' mean ain't in anybody's blood." Billy feels as if his face has been slapped, but amid all the ordinary sights, sounds, and smells of the day, he admits he's wrong and hatches the plan. ("The smell of my aunt's fried chicken made my mouth water. I rubbed the grooves in the wood floor with my bare feet and whispered in Sarah's ear, "Let's help the dogs escape from Uncle Jim's plans." And Sarah's face began to glow like the butt of a little lightning bug.")
An accessible length: Even though I actually wanted the story to be longer--since I liked the characters so much--I think it's the right length for many middle grade readers, especially those who are daunted by larger tomes. Tender-hearted readers will also rejoice in the ending.
About Pugalicious Press: Pugalicious Press is a small press out of New Hampshire. As they say on their website: While Pugalicious Press will work as a traditional small press, meaning our authors will receive an advance and royalties, the process of putting your book together will be less traditional. We want our books to be a creative collaboration between authors, artists, designers and editors.
You can learn more about them, and about their authors, including Laura Pauling, Kell Andrews, and Dionna L. Mann, at their website. Pugalicious Press is open to direct submissions from middle grade and young adult authors.