CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 8 . . . . December 15, 2000
Sam glared. I am a wonderful dog. Throwing herself on the lawn, Sam screwed her eyes shut again and refused to budge. This town has ten people in it. My life is wrecked, and it's your fault. As Sam lay there, a strange feeling crept over her. She felt as if she was being watched. Next door, she saw a girl with a gentle face and long brown hair peeking from behind a curtain. The girl was about ten years old. Her soft brown eyes looked very, very sad. Nosy kid, Sam growled.In Spying on Dracula, Mary Labatt introduces two very disaffected and unhappy characters. Samantha, known as Sam, is a sheepdog with a strong sense of self. Jennie is the gentle girl described above and Sam's new next-door neighbour. Samantha is furious with her owners for moving her to a new, assuredly uninteresting town. Jennie is consumed with misery at the loss of a best-friend. Happily, the two become acquainted when Jennie delivers a welcome-neighbour gift. With Jennie in the role of dog walker, Sam has the opportunity to plunge out into the town and into a series of adventures.
What begins as a job for Jennie, becomes a sustaining interest and new friendship as Sam soon discovers that her young human friend is a conduit for communication. Sam can "speak" into Jennie's mind, initially a shock to the recipient. Jennie's receptivity makes her a confidant for Sam, and, while this might seem to be adventure enough, Sam has an appetite for mystery on and beyond her extravagant taste for exotic snacks. While consuming watermelon laced with ketchup, Sam leads Jenny and Beth, another accomplice and friend, into solving the mysteries surrounding the McIver house. The neighborhood children are convinced that the owner is a criminal holed up in his hideout. Sam, however, has more exciting ideas, which move from the ordinary to the supernatural. As Sam says, "Ghosts would be good. Ghosts would be very good." As the investigation develops, the threesome are certain that McIver is Dracula himself. Forays into the yard to peer into the windows fuel the speculation and fear until Sam sorts out the real from the imagined.
Sam's suprasensitive skills are put into play in The Ghost of Captain Briggs, the second book in the "Sam, Dog Detective" series. When Jennie is allowed to take Sam on vacation, the dog is particularly relieved as this outing means she is safe from the prospect of obedience class. When the family arrives at the holiday destination, they find that the historic home is inhabited by an alarmingly forbidding housekeeper. Sam is thrilled, saying "What a great house! Mysterious things happen in houses like this. Maybe I can find a mystery in here." Sam's hopes are fulfilled almost immediately. Strange noises in the attic, a series of frightening notes under the bedroom door, and a tunnel leading from the kitchen to the beach are only part of the adventure. The legend of Captain Briggs, a sea captain turned pirate, propels Jennie, Beth and Sam into a series of frights which make the holiday a memorable one, if not a restful one.
With her "Sam, Dog Detective" series Labatt has created an engaging pair of heroines who have all of the appeal of a couple of best friends in the school yard. The dialogue, internal coming from Sam, and verbal from Jennie, works well to establish the characters and advance the plot in steady paces.
The format of the books is a strong factor in their appeal, in particular, to a budding independent reader of chapter books. While these titles would work well as read-alouds, the text is well designed for the determined, if inexpert, reader. Each chapter has a clever title and leads off with a miniature drawing of Sam with a thought bubble over her head, enclosing a cryptic or silly comment. All of Sam's comments are in italics which provides a change for the reader's eye, and the girls are committed list makers which provides yet another font. The exchanges between Sam and Jennie, being predominantly dialogue, also break up the text and advace the reader into a quick turn of the page.
Another element of appeal is the gentle introduction to the supernatural. Although Labatt suggests that ghosts and even Dracula may be around and about, the books are not overly frightening. The supernatural adds the spice of the exotic to the stories. Debbie Dadey has an extremely loyal following for her "Adventures of the Bailey School Kids" books which combine this supernatural element with a readable text. For the initiate to chapter reading, these "Sam, Dog Detective" books provide a parallel interest, a welcome other choice for librarians who are faced with determined genre readers at a young age.
Jennifer Johnson works as a public librarian in Ottawa, ON.
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