My dog is a winner by Elizabeth Fensham

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University of Queensland Press, 2020. ISBN: 9780702262951. 194pp.
(Ages: 9 - 12) Highly recommended. This is a heart-warming story from the point of view of "nine-and-a-lot" year old Eric. Although it can be read alone it is the third in a series. Eric has an amazing dog called Ugly who has the ability to empathize and care for various characters who need him. Ugly visits Eric's class once a week along with Eric's wise Grandpa and provides assistance to students. Firstly there is Barnaby, an autistic boy, who now speaks and rarely has meltdowns since he was allowed to read to Ugly. Then a young Syrian refugee girl called Maryam arrives. She has experienced major trauma and has difficulty starting school in a new country. Ugly helps her adapt and settle in. However the dilemma which provides the main thread of the books is Gretchen, Eric's very cranky and unhappy nearly twenty year old sister. Even Ugly seems to be getting overwhelmed by the problems he has to deal with. Eric devises a courageous plan to help Gretchen make friends. He also has high hopes that Ugly will win a heap of prizes in a Pet Show he has organised at his school.
Fensham is really successful at creating believable characters. The language is funny and simple so that Eric's insights and observations come across as authentic. Ugly is believable and not a caricature. There are many true tales of dogs which are capable of supporting people when needed. In fact there are successful programs like 'Labs 'n Life' where dogs are used in schools to help students experiencing difficulties. It was heartening to read in the acknowledgments that Fensham drew on her own research and experiences of visiting schools where there are therapy dogs Through Eric's voice Fensham also tackles the tough issues of depression and ageing in a non-overly dramatic, nuanced way. The touching exchange in the Principal's office was beautifully imagined. This story could be read aloud in a classroom setting and provide interesting discussion.
Jo Marshall