Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dog Days: Zoo Breath by Graham Salisbury

"Ack!" Stella snapped, turning around in the front seat of the car. "Get that thing away from me!"

It was Sunday, and Mom was driving us to the grocery store. Stella was sixteen; she'd come from Texas to live with us and help Mom. She was in high school, studying ways to mess up my life. Me and my sister, Darci, were in the backseat with Streak, my dog.

Streak was sitting on my knees, hanging her head over the front seat. Breathing on Stella.

Fourth-grader Calvin Coconut had thought he was in dog heaven when his mom finally agreed to let him adopt his dog Streak. But Streak comes at a price: Calvin has to promise to feed her, bathe her, keep her from chewing up anything mom likes, and keep her out of the house. All that is hard enough, but keeping her dog breath out of Stella's sensitive nose is proving even harder. His single mom is always tired and harried, and Calvin is afraid she's going to change her mind about Streak. How was he supposed to know that Streak was going to dash in the house with a dead toad in her mouth, and proudly deliver it to his mom? Still, Calvin just can't imagine taking Streak back to the dog shelter.

Then Calvin's cool teacher Mr. Purdy introduces a new assignment--a Discovery Project--and assigns Calvin and his buddy Julio to formulate a question, do primary research, and produce a presentation on their findings, and suddenly Calvin sees a way to convince his mom that dog breath is a minor factor in the universe of stink! The one problem is that Mr. Purdy requires that they produce "props," concrete proof of their findings. Now the question is, how do they catch dog breath in a bottle?

Mom's boyfriend Ledward is always thoughtfully bringing huge fish heads over for Streak that makes her breath good and stinky, all right, but nobody seems to know if fish breath has a long shelf life. And how bad is it, really? When the bathroom toilet begins to leak, Ledward offers to replace it as a surprise for Mom, giving Cal and Julio a chance for more scientific investigation: their conclusion? toilet hole stink is lots worse than dog breath, and probably even worse than the runner-up, dead toad stink. But then Ledward's pet pig provides a less reassuring finding: pig breath is actually better than dog breath!

Now if those pesky girls Maya and Shayla would quit spying on their research, Calvin just knows he can deliver a good report which will convince his mom that Streak's breath is not so bad. But just in case, he and Darci decide it's wise to bathe Streak daily and brush her teeth after every fish head dinner.

In his newest in this crackerjack beginning chapter series for boys, Newbery winning Graham Salisbury's Calvin Coconut: Zoo Breath (Wendy Lamb Random House, 2010) makes good use of his Hawaiian setting in the funniest yet of his Calvin Coconut books. Humor and insight into the process of growing up is Salisbury's strongest suit here, as he skillfully weaves Calvin's delightful boy adventures into his story, along with his longing for his absent father, his growing relationship with the kind and genuinely fatherly Ledward, and his appreciation of his role in the family. Previous books in this sun-kissed and laugh-filled series are Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet, Calvin Coconut: The Zippy Fix and Calvin Coconut: Dog Heaven.

For older readers, particularly those of the middle-school male persuasion, there are Salisbury's stories of World War II Hawaii, the Newbery Honor Under the Blood-Red Sun, House of the Red Fish (Readers Circle), and Eyes of the Emperor, as well as his beautifully written and gripping adventure stories Lord of the Deep, Night of the Howling Dogs, Blue Skin of the Sea, and Island Boyz.

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