This book had me at its title, Paws: simple and unambiguous with a huge promise of something cleverly canine exciting the dog lover in me. Having woofed this middle grade fiction down faster than my dog can empty a bowl of kibble, I wonder though if author, Kate Foster had other implications in mind when naming her latest book; we authors are fond of layered meanings and wondrous wordplay after all. For me Paws is a story about self-identity and recognition, of ‘pausing’ for thought not just to give ourselves more time to process a particular situation or emotion but also to appreciate another’s; so much easier to write than do especially if you are 11-year-old Alex Freeman dealing with autism.
Alex’s most pressing life goal is to secure a true and proper friendship before he is obliged to set sail on the unnavigable social ocean of high school. He believes his best chances lie in winning a coveted PAWS Dog Show trophy so spends his mornings and afternoons training his constant canine companion, Kevin the cockapoo in the finer arts of dog tricks and obedience.
Kevin is more than adept at reacting on command but his true talent is devotion. To Alex. Rarely leaving Alex’s side, Kevin is attuned to every mood swing and consternation Alex displays or rather sometimes, barely displays. He licks away his tears in times of distress, cuddles close when confusion looms, and protects Alex with his whole being even if it’s quite diminutive and fluffy. In short, Kevin is the canine equivalent of unconditional love, the kind you’d expect from a true friend.
Meantime, Alex does his best to pilot his way through a fairly run of the mill family and school life: FIFO dad, angsty teen brother, upper primary school playground tensions. Well at least this is run of the mill grist for most of us. For Alex, noise and conflict raise his heartbeat and anxiety levels to the nth degree. Coping with elevated stress exhausts him in a similar vein to my Ozzie from Oswald Messweather, my favourite Paws quote neatly summarising both mental states: ‘my head and my words are the most tired.’
Alex employs several management techniques to deal with his run away emotions including the ‘coping beaker’ but what draws me so powerfully to this character is his innate absolute literal view of everybody and everything. This absence of ambiguity or rather Alex’s struggle to understand some of the convoluted things we say and ways we behave suggests an inability to comprehend actions and words but for me hints at the premise that perhaps those with less neuro differences over complicate life and we’d all be better off viewing the world through Alex’s eyes.
Foster keeps the reader engaged and alert to Alex’s sensitivities with gentle, relatable first person prose. The personalities of the featured pooches are as complex and well represented as each of Alex’s family members, neighbours and school chums. Whilst adults feature in numerous influential roles as dictated by his disorder, this is still very much Alex’s story. He is resourceful, determined, vunerable and frightfully likeable, almost as much as his dog, Kevin.
Themes of friendship and loyalty, tenacity and empathy snuggle side-by-side like a pack of dozing puppies. The resultant tale resounds with tear-pricking poignancy and caring, joy and supreme enlightenment. We don’t always see what is right before our eyes. It is easy to overlook the good when we are overwhelmed by all the bad. Alex gets this more than anyone else and with the ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ styled metaphor of the Dog Show, eventually realises his unique potential.
Paws is a marvellous testimony for self-awareness and a timely addition to anyone’s library of books that assist with self-healing, mental health management, understanding neuro divergence and appreciating dogs. It’s a book that warrants a lot of tail wagging and I assure you, if I had one, I would be.
For readers in SE QLD this Saturday 24 April, trot along to Kate Foster’s book launch of Paws at Where the Wild Things Are Bookshop, Brisbane, from 2.00pm. DOGS WELCOMED! Woof!!
Author: Kate Foster
Publisher: Walker Books Australia, $16.99
Publication Date: April 2021
For ages: 9+
Type: Middle Grade Fiction