The Misadventures of the Magician's Dog, by Frances Sackett (Holiday House, August 2013, middle grade), is that rare sort of story. (At least I think it's rare....but I could be blanking on hundreds of them....)
Peter didn't want a dog--he didn't even like dogs-- but he had no choice. He found himself compelled to ask for one, and, once at the animal shelter, found himself compelled to become the owner of a scraggly white mutt. The Dog had picked him, for a particular purpose.
The Dog is no ordinary animal. He had once belonged to a magician, and had acquired powers of his own, including the ability to talk. He is a dog on a mission, one that involves awakening the powers lying dormant within Peter....not just so that Peter can become a magician in his own right, although this is what happens, but so that Peter can save the Dog's former master from an enchantment gone wrong.
And Peter, once he realizes that he can now do magic, becomes convinced that somehow he can bring back his father, off fighting far away. Even if he can't do it himself, maybe the Dog's magician would be able to do it for him....
But the magic Peter uses draws on anger. Every time he uses it, anger moves closer to the surface. If he gives in to the allure of his new powers, he risks loosing himself and harming his family....even though he is motivated by his love for this father.
The Dog leads Peter to his former master, who's trapped in a magical mansion of madness. He brings Peter's younger sisters too, in a deliberate effort to balance anger with love. But the freeing the magician involves more than just Peter drawing on his new powers...and Peter's not sure at all that the magician is worth bringing back to life, especially when it will put his sisters, and himself, in danger. Because the magician hadn't been able to hold on to the self he once was, back when he too was a boy, owner of a beloved dog. He has become not nice at all.
Now, I am not a dog person, and so I was a tad slow to warm up to this story, especially when The Dog turned out to be a rather unattractive specimen! But the story grew on me, with its slow build up of magical adventure, leading to the emotional crux of Peter's decision about how, or if, he should use his powers in his ultimate confrontation with the magician. By the end, I was finding it both gripping and satisfying.
It's one for readers slightly on the younger side of middle grade--9 year olds, give or take. Any older, and there might not be sufficient tolerance for the more fantastical elements of the story (as indicated on the cover, for instance, dinosaurs come to life at one point); and indeed, some of the magical goings on felt a tad like set-pieces, that didn't desperately add all that much. But I think the emotional heft of the story is pretty universal. The anger every kid feels toward their parents and siblings at some point, balanced by love and loyalty to family, the desire to be special and powerful, and the love the Dog still feels toward the boy the magician once was, despite everything, will probably resonate for many in the young target audience.
Especially if they like dogs to begin with.
disclaimer: review copy received from the author