With her new middle grade novel, “Code Name: Serendipity,” author Amber Smith presents an eleven-year-old fifth grader named Sadie. Sadie doesn’t feel as if she fits in anywhere because now that her best friend, Jude, has moved away, she has no one at school to talk to, ride the bus with, or eat lunch with. At home, her older brother Noah is often unkind and has little time for her. Her two moms are also busy, and her grandfather’s recent declining mental health means they have worries of their own. It doesn’t help that Sadie has a learning disability, even though she prefers to call it a learning difference.
Sadie loves weekends because she can pretend that everything in her life is fine, but when the story opens, her moms aren’t there on Sunday morning to make the traditional breakfast of French toast, Sadie’s favorite. They’ve gone to bring Sadie’s grandfather back to live with them after he was found wandering around his apartment building, confused. While Sadie is in the backyard, she hears a cry for help. She follows the voice and realizes that there’s a dog in the woods outside of their backyard gate. Somehow, the dog is communicating with her. The dog has no collar and no home. But before Sadie can lure the dog inside their fenced yard, the dog is spooked and runs away.
As the story progresses, we see how Sadie, with the help of her Grandfather, tries to save the dog. But the story isn’t just about a girl and a dog in need of rescue. We see Sadie as she struggles in school and is embarrassed by the fact that she needs extra support in academics. We see her also struggling with her feelings of loneliness, and her problems making a new friend. Sadie’s now long-distance friend, Jude, is maturing faster than Sadie, and the story clearly reflects the difficulty of keeping friendships going once people are separated. Jude has made friends and is interested in boys, and she also seems indifferent to Sadie’s struggle to save the dog. She laughs when Sadie reveals the secret that she can communicate with the dog.
There’s a lot going on in the story, but central to Sadie’s life at this time is trying to save the dog, who is in danger. Sadie is also working on her graphic novel about an interspace explorer, and as is often the case, students who might struggle with some kinds of academics have other real and important strengths. When it comes to ideas to save “her” dog, Sadie can be positively brilliant. The importance of friendship and of belonging are important themes in this novel, as are compassion, the difficulty of dealing with grandparents as they age and their needs change, and how important it is to communicate with each other. When Sadie’s moms accuse her, rightfully, of concealing truths from them, she responds that they, too, are guilty of that. The dog, ultimately named Serendipity, and the animal’s ability to communicate important information, reminds us that communication is a two-way street. We have to share truths, but also and equally importantly, we have to be open to listening.
If you like books about dogs, see also, Stay by Bobbie Pyron, Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac, Brave Like That by Lindsey Stoddard, Wonderland by Barbara O’Connor, and Code Word Courage by Kirby Larson.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Razorbill, the publisher, for review purposes.