I’ll admit it: I haven’t read a lot of modern middle grade fiction. I’m a big fan of picture books and young adult novels, but when it came to reading middle grade, as an adult reader I found myself wondering what this world would be like, and if I would enjoy it. I wondered if the language would feel too adolescent for my tastes; if a writer would try to sound young when they really weren’t. I envisioned authors quoting rap lyrics in the hopes of sounding “cool”. As a former middle school teacher, who focused a great deal on the classics, I was skeptical.
But ten pages into Paul Griffin’s When Friendship Followed Me Home, my fears were quickly alleviated. I was hooked. And I mean HOOKED! Ben Coffin is a teenager who brings me back to everything that was challenging about those junior high years, but he does it with a sense of humor and a pull at your heartstrings that has you rooting for his success the entire story.
As a former foster care kid who is adopted by his dream mother, Ben treasures his relationship with her. But that joy is short-lived when she passes suddenly and he’s left to navigate a world without her. One that includes a new home with an aunt who is struggling to figure out instant parenthood, and her abusive boyfriend, who can’t figure out how to control his rage. However, Ben finds solace in new friends—with Flip, a mangy dog he finds on the street, and Halley, the daughter of his favorite teacher, who is battling cancer. A fellow book nerd, Halley in particular opens up a new kind of happiness for Ben that will forever change how he moves forward in life.
One of the reasons this book drew my attention was because I had learned it featured a Read to Dogs program. The concept is to have struggling readers sit down with therapy dogs and read to them in an attempt to build up the reader’s confidence. My own children have participated in this program and to this day, it is one of their favorite things to do. We have pictures scattered throughout our house of them reading books of all genres to patient, interested dogs. I loved that Paul Griffin found a way to incorporate a similar program in this novel, by having Ben train Flip to become a therapy dog.
There is an important detail to note: This isn’t a story for the faint of heart. It’s one that makes sloppy tears fall from your face as you wipe them quickly with the back of your hand so you can keep turning the pages. You will scream, “NO!” one minute (possibly out loud!), and the next you’ll be cheering and fist pumping. This book tackles some difficult issues, including foster care, physical abuse, emotional withdrawal, and coping with the loss of loved ones.
But it’s a book that every middle schooler, high schooler, and adult should read. It teaches not only about empathy and compassion, but perseverance. You will want to talk about all that Ben lives through, and what you would do if faced with those same obstacles. You’ll want to know what happens next and will feel an instant need to have assurance that Ben will be okay. In a word—you will be invested. And to me, that’s the very thing you want every reader to be. Not matter their age.
When Friendship Followed Me Home is on shelves now.