Review of the Day: Listen!
Nope. Don’t like dogs. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I like ‘em fine. I just wouldn’t label myself a “dog person”. I’m not the kind of gal that goes all googley-eyed over the itty bitty puppy sitting across from me on the subway or who bursts into tears at the mere mention of Old Yeller’s name. As for dog books, I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. “Shiloh”? Fine, I guess. Not really my bag. “101 Dalmations”? Never read it. “Sounder”? Ditto. This is all to tell you that picking up “Listen!”, by Stephanie S. Tolan did not create any special pitter patters within my little heart. Dog on cover, thought I. How nice. I felt a bit wary since Tolan was the woman who wrote, “Surviving the Applewhites”, which I felt somewhat ‘meh’ about. So consider me mind-blowingly knocked back out of my seat surprised when about roughly three pages into this book I found myself thinking, “Hey! This is good! Quite exceptional!”. With so early a sense of acceptance, the fact that the book really and truly made me feel like a dog person is nothing short of miraculous. If you know a kid who loves dogs, a kid who loves cats, a kid who loves hot pink salamanders, or a kid who doesn’t like any kind of animal whatsoever, this is the book to hand them.
Charlene, a.k.a. Charley hasn’t had it easy lately. A year or two ago her mother died when she left to photograph the Amazon jungle. Then, a couple months ago, Charley was involved in a horrible car accident that rendered one of her legs in need of major reconstruction and physical therapy. Charley would prefer to stay indoors all the time if she could, but her father goads her into taking a walk one day just to prove that she can. En route, she sees something that bowls her over. A dog. A wild dog that’s been living in the woods, but a dog just the same. Turns out he’s a stray that has obviously suffered some abuse in the past and doesn’t trust any humans. Still, the dog is sweet, Charley can see that, and suddenly she has a purpose in life. She’s going to tame him. She’s going to tame Coyote (his new name). And while the process of taming is never easy and often deeply frustrating, Charley proves to be up to the challenge of getting someone to love her and trust her with their safety.
Recently a whole slew of children’s literature magazines have been lamenting the fact that the publishing world has been turning its attention almost entirely towards “middle grade fiction”. You know. Harry Potter-type fantasies and books averaging out at 600 pages plus. With that in the foreground of my mind I’ve been making a special effort to seek out any and all books that might appeal to those kids that don’t get excited by the prospect of reading a phone book-sized tome. In such a light as this, “Listen!”, is the answer to my prayers. First of all, there’s the fact that kids will actually like it. Really really like it. Credit where credit’s due, Tolan is infinitely readable. In “Listen!”, we’ve also some pretty fabulous writing on hand as well. This is a book all about relationships. The one between Charley and Coyote, Charley and her mother’s memory, Charley and her father, Charley and her friend Amy... and so on. Every person in the book, every character it seems, has a heart and a head and an independent mind. This is a book free of cliches and overdone ideas. It’s fresh, and that’s something the kids reading it are going to appreciate.
Tolan isn't afraid to leave a couple loose ends blowing about once the story is over. There’s the fact that while Charley learns and grows from her experiences, her father never does. Charley works through her grief and pain through sheer will. Her father, on the other hand, is still hiding behind his 80 hour workweeks by the end of the tale. He may have a newfound respect for his daughter and maybe he’s more inclined to stay and home and build a doghouse or something with her, but he hasn’t gone through what she has and it shows. While Charley will be able to move on with her life, her father may never be able to do so. It’s sad, but it feels true. Feels real.
Of course, I liked Tolan’s wordplay as well. She’s as comfortable having Charley call her trainer Tony a “physical terrorist” as she is saying that in the kitchen her father, “can make the opening of a box of cereal sound like small arms fire”. Then spotted throughout the text, Tolan displays her skill at conjuring up the visual. “The plates of the pine tree’s bark, layer after thin layer, form a jagged ring of concentric circles”. Luscious.
Admittedly, there is the whole Charley’s-mental-connection-to-Coyote thing to grapple with. Normally this kind of spiritual mumbo jumbo would set my teeth on edge. Credit Tolan then for doing the impossible. She takes a very realistic story and manages to weave in a small element that allows her heroine to get brief glimpses of the world through Coyote’s eyes without dragging the book down into some kind of supernatural hodgepodge. Since she’s dealing with a kind of Zen attitude towards nature and humanity’s relation towards it, she’s treading on thin ice to begin with. There’s a memory Charley has of her mother telling a hive of wasps that they won’t be harmed and shouldn’t sting her that could have been cutesy or unbelievable. The fact that it flows as beautifully as it does with the rest of the text speaks to how well the book holds together.
Now I’m going to have to be honest with you here. There may be another reason why I liked this book, and it probably will have very little connection to whether or not kids will like it too. For them, it’s all going to be about the relationship between Coyote and Charley. For me, it was the book’s attitude towards photography. Susan Sontag herself could hardly have written better child-friendly passages about the power of the captured image. Charley’s mother was a nature photographer and in communing better with the forest and its denizens, Charley begins to unravel why her mother was as good an artist as she was. I love photography deeply and everything Charley discovers felt true to me. And though I can’t vouch for them, it may well feel true to its child readers as well.
So let’s sum up, shall we? What we have here is a dog book, yes. But a dog book that is also a book about healing yourself and connecting to something bigger than your own puny existence. Throw in some great writing, a bit of photography, and some humor on the side (always important) and you’ve got yourself one of the strongest titles of the year. Fresh, fine, and funny, “Listen!”, is one of those books kids will find themselves reading and rereading for years to come. It has “classic” status stamped all over it. Best of all, you don’t even have to like dogs. A definite plus.