Sonderbooks Book Review of

Elf Dog & Owl Head

by M. T. Anderson

illustrated by Junyi Wu

Elf Dog and Owl Head

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Junyi Wu

Reviewed February 21, 2024, from a library book.
Candlewick Press, 2023. 232 pages.
Starred Review
2024 Newbery Honor Book

Oh, I loved this book so much! It reminded me of the Edward Eager magic-filled books I read and loved as a kid.

But this is a modern take on magic. Clay is stuck doing school at home because of a global pandemic. Everyone in his family is getting on each other's nerves. But his house is next to the woods. He goes out walking in the woods, thinking how stupid it is to carry a Frisbee by himself, when he sees a white dog with strange red ears. The reader knows she is a dog from the hunting pack of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, who didn't go back to her den under the mountain quickly enough. But Clay only knows that she enjoys catching the Frisbee.

Clay notices right away that something's off about the dog. When she fetches, she seems to use some kind of teleporting magic. When she follows him home, the family puts out notices, but no one seems to be missing a white dog with red ears. She settles in and finds that she likes playing with the boy instead of working all the time, and she likes sleeping on his bed instead of in a den.

And so Clay's magical adventures begin. It turns out that his elf dog can easily take paths between worlds and take Clay to magical places he's never seen before -- with some interesting magical consequences. He even makes a new friend from a village in a parallel world -- a boy with an owl head.

Clay has two sisters -- one older teen sister and one younger tag-along sister. Even his sisters get some adventures. In fact, I especially like the older sister DiRossi's encounters with magic. When she meets a depressed giant, the author makes gentle fun of her teenage angst in a way I thought was hilarious while also being spot-on. But a scene later in the book gives even DiRossi a nice dose of magical wonder and joy.

So this is a book about magical adventures, playful and joyful. Sometimes things go wrong, and they have to fix them. And there's quite a bit of danger at the end.

It's also a book about family and friendship and the magical bond between a boy and his dog.

I love that the Newbery committee this year chose some books that are fully children's books, not even "middle grade" books -- though middle graders will enjoy it, too. But Clay's concerns are a kid's concerns, with none of that burgeoning middle grade awareness of the opposite sex. And it's refreshing that these younger kids get such distinguished books, too.

I said that I hope the Newbery winner, The Eyes and the Impossible, will get read in classrooms across America. I wish that for this book, too. But what this book really made me think of was back in the day when my husband and I read books at bedtime to our two kids, who were six and a half years apart. We looked for books with a wide age range to appeal to them both -- and this book makes me wish for those days again, because this kind of family story with magic would have exactly filled the bill.

Oh, and spoiler alert: It's an award-winning book with a dog on the cover -- Yet no animals die!