Rating: 4 stars
“When Friendship Followed Me Home” by Paul Griffin has a dog on the cover. Call me a sucker, but that was the hook. And after that there was nothing to do but keep reading until the tearful end. The story is touching and gripping and magical.
Griffin writes beautifully about family, friendship, belonging, and loss in a story that is sure to leave every reader with at least a tear in his or her eye, if not a pile of soggy tissues. It’s about a boy named Ben who was finally adopted after almost a decade in foster care. His adoptive mother is loving and funny, and they are planning on moving to Florida when she retires in a few years. She’s the kind of mom who laughs and takes it in stride when Ben brings home a frightened little dog he rescued from being attacked by a cat.
She’s also the kind of mom who insists they have to try to see if the dog has an owner. When the owner shows up and is a homeless woman, Ben’s mom tries to help her. She leaves them the dog. So when Ben’s mom dies suddenly, he’s bereft and alone again in the world. His mother’s sister tries to make him feel loved, but it’s difficult and her boyfriend is not responsible or ready to help parent a young boy. The only person who Ben feels really close to is the local librarian and her daughter.
Halley, the daughter, has cancer. It’s shared with the reader in subtle ways, and unobservant readers might miss that point for a while. It’s shown in the berets she wears and a brief conversation at the beginning about no eyebrows and chemo that makes your hair fall out. Halley’s father is a magician, and the reader learns that Ben hates magic.
Griffin shares the pieces of the story like a puzzle, a corner piece first, then something from the middle. The reader slowly learns about Ben’s life before his adoption and about Halley’s cancer and the novel she is writing. It’s also about how a dog, and the love of a dog, can change a life. Flip, the dog Ben saves, becomes a reading therapy dog through the encouragement of his mother and Halley.
The book is all about doing the best you can when your lifeboat overturns and you are surrounded by sharks. It’s about taking the outstretched hand and living life to the fullest. But it’s also about loss, so most readers should be prepared by having at least one box of tissue nearby during the last half of the story. Someone who can read this story without shedding even one tear surely has a heart of stone.
The story is perfect for discussions about what makes a family. First Ben has no family, then his adopted mother is really more the age of a grandmother. Finally, his family becomes the local librarian who had befriended him. Much of the story is about his friendship with Halley, the librarian’s daughter who has cancer. She and Ben love to tell stories, and she captures Ben with her fantasy “novel” about the two of them. (Spoiler: it does not have a happy ending.)
While this book is promoted as for children aged 10 and older, for classroom use this would work better as a middle school book. Fifth graders will love the story, but it might prove too emotional a story for group discussion. Those in sixth grade and above will better be able to deal with the strong theme of loss in the story.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dial, for review purposes.