Cammie McGovern knows a lot about autistic children. As she explains in the Author’s Note, she has an autistic son. She also knows a lot about children and their dogs. She had a dog, Buddy, who was her son’s companion. Although Buddy wasn’t a trained service dog, he and her son had a special connection, and that was the basis for her new brilliant novel, “Chester and Gus.”
“Chester and Gus” is about Chester, a dog whose fear of loud noises flunked him out of “service dog school.” His trainer, Penny, noticed Chester’s brilliance, his ability to learn commands and vocabulary words, his willingness to please. She had high hopes for him and was devastated when he was basically sold to a family who wanted Chester as a companion for their autistic son.
Gus is the autistic son who cannot communicate much and cannot interact with others, and who has difficulty getting through the day without having a tantrum. He seems isolated in his own world, and as much as his parents try to get through to him, they rarely feel successful. Chester, at first, doesn’t feel successful either.
But occasionally, Chester finds — to his surprise — that he and Gus can almost magically communicate without actually talking. Each can hear what the other is thinking. This is sporadic, but it really happens. And when it does, it’s almost magical.
Chester finds that he grows to love Gus, and he wants more than anything to help Gus. He notices more about Gus than almost anyone. And because Chester is narrating the story, the reader gets to learn and understand what Chester does.
Like real life, the bond between Chester and Gus develops over time, not smoothly but rather with definite ups and downs. Sometimes Chester understands Gus perfectly and they are able to “talk,” but at other times, Chester must try to figure out what is going on in Gus’s mind.
It’s apparent that McGovern has carefully researched the subject of service dogs, therapy dogs, and dogs who are trained to detect seizures. She also has researched the ability of dogs to learn as many as a thousand words and be able to make inferences. Chaser, the famous border collie, was able to infer the name of a new toy when it was mixed with other toys for which Chaser had learned the names (see video).
So while the ability of Chester to communicate with Gus is definitely part of the magic of the story, his ability to make inferences and know hundreds of words is not. It’s a reality with intelligent dogs.
I think that McGovern has done what all dog lovers do — she has looked into the eyes of a dog she loved and desperately wished that she knew what the dog wanted to say to her. And in this story, she has been able to make that wish a reality. A beautiful reality.
This book would be a great choice for any middle grade readers, but especially for use as a classroom read aloud. There is much discussion that a teacher could pull from the story about students who are different, dogs who help people, acts of kindness, and compassion, and even adopting from a shelter.
I also really love the fact that McGovern writes about shelters as the places to adopt a perfect companion — because that’s very true and very important. Everyone should have their own “Chester,” and it only takes a visit to the shelter and some training.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Harper, for review purposes.