‘Wonderland’ by Barbara O’Connor Is a Touching Middle Grade Novel About Two Lonely Girls and the Old Man (and Dog) They Rescue

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With “Wonderland,” author Barbara O’Connor continues her tradition of creating lovely stories about children and dogs. Here the two main characters, Mavis and Rose, who come from completely different social realms, become best friends. At least for a while.

It’s what happens during that best friend summer that is almost magical. Mavis moves to Landry, Alabama with her mother who has secured a job as housekeeper to Rose’s mother. Rose is lonely and doesn’t fit in with the soon-to-be-fifth grade girls in her wealthy subdivision. They are interested in clothes and make up, while Rose prefers to hang out with the gatekeeper, Mr. Duffy, playing checkers and laughing at his jokes.

Mavis is tired of constantly moving as her mother gets one job after another and begins complaining about each new job as soon as it starts. She has never had a good friend, certainly not a best friend, but she is determined that in Landry, she will have a best friend. And upon meeting Rose, she immediately informs her that they will be best friends.

Rose’s mother is a typical, uptight, Southern social snob. She looks down on Mavis and her mother, and to be fair, Mavis’ mother is far from a great housekeeper. She’s surly and complains directly to Rose’s mother about almost everything.

Rose and Mavis become fast friends and hang out with Mr. Duffy. But Rose explains to Mavis that since Mr. Duffy’s dog, Queenie, died, Mr. Duffy hasn’t been the same. He’s forgetful, crabby, and unhappy. The residents are unhappy, too, because he forgets to write down who should be allowed in, and he lets in those who are not on the list. The girls decide that the way to fix Mr. Duffy is to get him another dog. But he says he’s too old for a new dog.

When they happen upon a stray dog, the problem seems to be solved. But nothing is every quite that simple, as the girls find out. Rose must go outside her zone of comfort to help Mavis get Mr. Duffy his dog. And Mavis finds out that sometimes it’s hard to keep a best friend.

The story is told from the point of view of the two girls, in alternating chapters. Henry, the racing greyhound who escaped from the track, is the third point of view. He is scared and hungry, and he reminisces about a place called Wonderland, which the reader only learns about toward the end of the story.

O’Connor manages to cram a lot of thought into this little book. Also worthy of discussion is the fact that when Mavis’ mother quits the housekeeping job — for which she was quite unqualified — and gets a job at an insurance agency where the is potential for advancement, her attitude changes completely. Sometimes, giving someone a chance is all they need to succeed.

Social standing, dog racing, friendship, and compassion are all wonderful topics that will lead to fabulous discussion from this book. It’s about doing the right thing even when others might disagree, about thinking of others and what will make them happy, and about the importance of friendship.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, the publisher, for review purposes.

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