Life is changing for 11-year-old Henry, and not necessarily in ways he likes. He’s been okay with a baby brother arriving on the scene after 10 years of being an only child, okay with his dad deciding to stay home to look after the kids while his mom goes back to work, and okay with only having one real friend, Max. But it’s almost the end of Grade 5, and Max is spending more and more time with his chess club buddies. He’s even started to make fun of Henry for things like his fake “Chad Baker All-Star” shoes from the dollar store and the hand-me-down clothes Max’s mom passes along to Henry when Max outgrows them. When it turns out that, despite promises to find something they can afford, Henry’s parents have failed to sign him up for any summer programs or camps, Henry sees a long, depressing season stretching ahead of him, with no best friend, no money, and little chance of fun.
Andrew Larsen, winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for In the Tree House, branches out beyond picture books in this middle-grade novel, but retains the touching, fun voice for which he’s become known. Henry is a sensitive kid who strikes the right balance between exuberant child and moody teen. He’s equally intrigued by pop-bottle rockets and dog-loving redhead Gretchen Thorn. He’s not above blaming his baby brother for encouraging their grandfather’s beloved dog to run away from the park, but he makes up for it by having the toddler help him make missing-dog posters on the computer.
There’s nothing overly original about Dingus, but that doesn’t detract from its charm. The “day-in-the-life” aspect of Larsen’s narrative lends immediacy and several touching family scenes ground the story in familiar territory for readers, reinforcing the central themes of the importance of staying connected to loved ones and the need to adapt to changes and challenges. The strong emphasis on relationships – Henry and Max, Henry and his mom, Henry’s dad and grandfather, Henry and his little brother – allows Larsen to build complex characters and play with their interactions. Even toddler Sam has a distinct personality, expressed through short exclamations that manage not to be cutesy or annoying.
Sometimes kids just want to read relatable stories about other kids like themselves. Dingus ably fits the bill.