The Rusty Key's Reviews > Julia Gillian And the Dream of the Dog

Julia Gillian And the Dream of the Dog by Alison McGhee
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Oct 26, 2010

it was amazing

Reviewed by Rusty Key Writer: Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Girls, Ages 8 and Up for themes of death and grief. Parents, put tissues and some good, cheer-me-up ice cream on your shopping list.

One Word Summary: Heartfelt

What a treat and a delight to get to know Julia Gillian. Following in the footsteps of Judy Blume’s ‘Ramona’ books, Alison McGhee has exemplified the best aspects of middle grade serial fiction through Julia, creating a character that young readers can grow with, laugh with, and can look to for guidance.

This third installment in the ‘Julia Gillian’ series returns us to Julia’s neighborhood in Minneapolis, where the ordinary seems magical, and small pleasures are savored. Julia is now in sixth grade, her first year of Junior High, and much more seems to be expected of her. While now considered a ‘little kid’ again, as compared to the fearsome and rowdy eighth graders, a reading buddy partnership with a third grade class has Julia and her friends scrambling to become good role models for these younger versions of themselves. For Julia this is particularly difficult, as she hates reading and is paired with a misanthropic young boy who seems to hate it even more. In addition to academic struggles, there’s conflict with the eighth graders after an accidental run in at the girl’s bathroom that gets blown out of proportion and turns into widespread anxiety amongst the sixth graders. And most terribly, Julia’s long time companion and beloved friend, her St. Bernard named Bigfoot, isn’t doing so well. He’s eleven years old now, quite old for a St. Bernard, and a trip to the vet discovers a heart problem that is causing Bigfoot to slow down.

Much of this story is about Julia Gillian’s attempts to ‘control for variables,’ as she calls it; the ways in which she thinks she can control challenging situations to avoid pain or disappointment. As she and her friends have gone from being the big fish in a small pond to the exact opposite with their entry into junior high, the comfortable world that they had mastered is gone, and they now swim in unpredictable and overwhelming waters. As an adult reader it’s heartbreaking to watch the denial she experiences in regards to her dog’s condition, and the earnestness of her belief that she can control the outcome of situations that just aren’t controllable. It’s a tough lesson for anyone to learn, and Alison McGhee handles the depiction of this tumultuous time in a young person’s life in a way that’s tender and relatable.

As with the previous books in this series, the plot is just one of the elements that makes it so special. There is a particular slant to the way that Julia Gillian sees and experiences the world around her that’s entirely endearing. She has a way of picking out details in very average things and highlighting them in a way that makes them seem extraordinary. Julia’s favorite time of day is when she gets to take her dog on a long walk after school, and all along the eleven-square block walk are points of wonderment: The hardware store which puts up seasonal decoration that they stop to admire, the house which always leaves a dish of water out front for any passing dogs to enjoy, the dog park full of friends, everything is a little more special through Julia Gillian’s eyes, and through XX’s illustrations. It’s a marvelous example of the freshness with which children view every experience, be it a fearful or beautiful one. I’d recommend it to any adult who’s feeling in a bit of a rut.

The ending is very emotional. I was happy to be reading it in private as I had to put the book down several times to wipe my eyes. Parents may want to pre-read this before giving it to younger readers so they can be prepared to answer any questions that may come up. But I couldn’t recommend it more strongly for the honesty and courage with which this book presents the difficult lessons of loss. With the sadness comes the realization of the depths of love, something that children shouldn’t be shielded from.

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message 1: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Rocklin Beverly Cleary's Ramona books...yes. I truly liked and responded to this book.

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