Middle Grade Review: How To Train Your Dad (Gary Paulsen)
About This Book:
Twelve-year-old Carl is fed up with his father's single-minded pursuit of an off-the-grid existence. His dad may be brilliant, but dumpster-diving for food, scouring through trash for salvageable junk, and wearing clothes fully sourced from garage sales is getting old. Increasingly worried about what schoolmates and a certain girl at his new school might think of his circumstances―and encouraged by his off-kilter best friend―Carl adopts the principles set forth in a randomly discovered puppy-training pamphlet to “retrain” his dad’s mindset . . . a crackpot experiment that produces some very unintentional results.
This is a fierce and funny novel about family, green-living, and untangling some of the ties that bind from middle-grade master Gary Paulsen.
*Review Contributed by Mark Buxton, Staff Reviewer*
The best part of the book is Carl’s dad, as he creates an unusual problem for his son. They live in a trailer located in an industrial part of town, and their yard consists of dirt. His dad doesn’t believe in money, and he’s focused on filling needs, not wants. However, dumpster diving and getting clothes from second-hand shops or garage sales isn’t an impression a twelve-year-old boy wants to share with others. Faded pink overalls, underwear that’s too small, and shoes that are too big affect Carl’s self-image. SP, the label Carl uses for his dad, has a special talent for repairing things, although he tends to make unexpected modifications. The consequences create surprise twists to the plot and embarrassing experiences for Carl.
The plot focuses on Carl’s efforts to change his father’s unusual decisions, but his plans are based on a pamphlet instructing owners on how to change their pets’ behaviors. Obviously, pets and humans are quite different. The story is told from Carl’s point of view, as he explains to readers the experiment to make his life less awkward. Middle-grade readers can identify with Carl’s desires to be accepted by his peers and to not stand out in negative ways. Carl tries ignoring negative behaviors, using positive reinforcement for good behaviors, and distracting his father from unwanted situations. The results are mixed but always amusing. Carl’s best friend Pooder adds creative ideas to the situations which results in additional humor.
The family has a pit bull named Carol that becomes an influential character. Carol is a rescue dog with a horrible history, but she becomes a loyal and protective member of the family. Skunks found on the property are quickly torn to shreds, and her growls and teeth tell everyone she means business. Carl discovers she is more intelligent than he expected, since Carol seems to figure out Carl is experimenting on his father. Carol enjoys SP’s lifestyle, so she doesn’t appreciate Carl’s attempts to make changes. She becomes an obstacle, as Carl tries to train his dad.
What didn’t work as well:
A primary motivation for Carl is a wish to impress the most awesome, cute girl at school. However, she doesn’t show up in the story until the end, and the plot doesn’t include any events at school. Interacting with the girl and other students would help to emphasize the conflict and increase the tension. The author has an unexpected reason for not including the girl that makes sense in the story, but other students could have been used.
The Final Verdict:
A hilarious plan to survive middle school. Carl’s lifestyle is unusual, and his strategy to change his father’s behavior is equally strange. The story is sure to entertain and is highly recommended for your amusement.
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