The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble
A finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2019.
Ella and her brother Emery are alone in a city that's starving to death. If they are going to survive, they must get away, upcountry, to find Emery's mum. But how can two kids travel such big distances across a dry, barren, and dangerous landscape? Well, when you've got five big doggos and a dry-land dogsled, the answer is you go mushing. But when Emery is injured, Ella must find a way to navigate them through rough terrain, and even rougher encounters with desperate people.
The Dog Runner is a cracking read. Author Bren MacDibble sets a blistering pace, with plenty of action to grip the reader from the very first page. It follows the children’s tense, and at times a little bit scary, journey across a dystopian Australia desert as they try desperately to get to Emery’s mum’s house.
MacDibble drops a lovely little ‘easter egg’ in the text, with Ella borrowing Lord of the Flies at the beginning of the book; an appropriate peek of the dystopian future ahead of her.
MacDibble provides readers with just enough information to be able to imagine the story, without holding their hands through the book. Ella is a strong female lead, who overcomes fears and insecurities to survive. Her voice in the book is authentic and highlights her youth. Emery is the typical kind and protective big brother. It was particularly interesting to have a blended family in the story. Ella and Emery are step-siblings, and the theme of what constitutes a family runs throughout the book in a subtle yet compelling way. The addition of the dogs, and the siblings care and respect for them, adds another interesting and relatable dimension to this theme of family.
This is middle-grade fiction at its finest. It would make for a wonderful class read aloud, with lots of opportunities to extend and expand on knowledge. For independent readers, the text is well-pitched and aimed at those aged over 10. It isn’t a hard read, although some scenes might be a little squeamish for younger ones.
The story does lack a little of the emotional touch, with a lot of the focus on the action. However, the book does help ignite deep thinking. The story provides a way in for younger readers to start thinking about food security and caring for our environment. MacDibble also touches on indigenous history and knowledge, and of the importance of intergenerational knowledge.
With strong themes too about love, loyalty and the environment, The Dog Runner is a compelling read.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
Allen & Unwin, RRP $18.99