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Back to School Reading Pick


In December of 2012 I wrote a blog about a fox hound named Tess with an unusual past. Tess had spent the first three years of her life as a brood bitch for a company that bred dogs for laboratory research. Tess was a sweet dog but a real training challenge because she lacked the normal canine assumption that undergirds their relationship with us: namely that the things we say and do carry meaning for them. Tess made no such assumption. Even that basic concept had to be established through training.

Fortunately for Tess, her new owner, Martha Ritter recognized this challenge and made a commitment to see it through. I had the privilege of helping Martha figure out and train Tess. I say privilege because it takes a special kind of person to rescue such a dog and Martha is that special kind of person. And talented too! Her just released novel, The Nearly Calamitous Taming of PZ, is a fictionalized account of Tess’s long journey to near normalcy. Written for children ages 8-12, PZ refers to the identification number tattooed inside the dog’s ear: PZ-5934. In the book, when Olivia adopts PZ she gives her a real name, Lolly J.

Although it is written for kids, it’s not childish by any stretch. My wife and I both loved it as did our 19-year old daughter. And although it’s a children’s novel and in places quite fanciful, it rings true over and over again as it examines both human and canine perceptions, emotions, relationships and personal growth. The Nearly Calamitous Training of PZ is somewhat reminiscent of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I don’t think that the parallel is intentional, but Dottie the lady bug, who is Lolly J.’s mentor, makes a wonderful literary device that provides the adult perspective to the clueless dog as well as a lovely dose of humor for the delighted reader.

One of my favorite dialogues in the book happens (not surprisingly) as Olivia begins training her new dog. Lolly J. is having a little trouble figuring out what it all means. Dottie, who is along for the ride inside Lolly J.’s ear, asks for an explanation for the roller coaster ride she’s enduring. From the dog’s description of what’s happening Dottie figures out what’s going on. ‘“Oh, Lolly J. She’s trying to train you!” Dottie informed the dog. “To do what?” “To walk.” “Can’t they see that I can walk?” “This is good!” Dottie said. “The girl wants you to walk like her so you can walk with her.”

One last thing, Matt Ryan’s illustrations in this book are Rockwell-esqe. I mean that. Matt is a cartoonist by training but his illustrations have lots of detail and his faces are so expressive. He took great care to see the world from the dog’s perspective and the results are wonderful. It’s been a few years since our kids were middle-graders but unless things have changed drastically since then, a book this good should be in great demand. I highly recommend it.

The Nearly Calamitous Taming of PZ is available at Amazon.com and soon through local bookstores. The audiobook–read by Martha, who is also an actress–will be out soon, too. Martha will be doing a book talk and reading at the West Hartford Noah Webster Library on Sunday, October 26th at 2. (Go to tamingpz.com for more information)

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