What would you do if you had a problem and no one believed you?

Hawaiʻi author Sue Cowing‘s middle-grade novel You Will Call Me Drog (Lerner Publishing, 2011) is a story about a boy stuck in more ways than one.

Parker is eleven years old, he does okay in school but doesn’t particularly like it, and his parents are divorced.  His strained relationship with his father is confusing because his Dad overcompensates by constantly threatening to send him to an all boys military academy, which would be even worse than school. His best and only friend is a girl named Wren. They like to tinker and build things together and during a trip to the junk yard they stumble across a dirty old puppet. When Parker puts it on, it won’t come off. Not only will it not come off, but it starts talking. And that’s when it all goes downhill.

[gn_quote]Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a talking puppet, right? So when I tell people I have one, do they say, “Oh, well, we must be wrong, tell us all about it Parker?” Noooo. They’d rather believe I’m lying or that there’s something wrong with me. Instead of changing their minds about talking puppets, they change their minds about me. Even my mother. Even my best friend.

I guess telling the truth only works when you have something usual to say.[/gn_quote]

Middle school is tough. Being eleven is tougher. You’re not a little kid anymore, but you’re still not a big kid either. You’re just starting to make your own choices and being held accountable for them. Things are awkward enough for Parker as it is, but add a mischievous, uncontrollable puppet that won’t go away and things are pretty much impossible. Drog’s trouble making ways and sarcastic comments become more than a nuisance, they’ve upended Parker’s life entirely.

I had the privilege of attending an SCBWI conference with Cowing last winter and one of the crucial things we learned from workshop leader Donna Jo-Napoli is that our characters need to have a problem, a conflict. The first thing you do in the story after establishing a conflict is to make that problem worse. Then you make it worse still until there is nowhere else for the character to go but forward. Cowing masterfully creates momentum in this story by doing just that and you can really feel Parker’s growing frustration.

Don’t let the fantastical elements of this book fool you, this story has many levels and a lot of emotional depth. It’s very sophisticated and well developed—the kind of book you can read more than once and always find something new. You should never dumb down stories for children, and Cowing certainly doesn’t.  Her prose is straightforward and fresh. You Will Call Me Drog is not just about a boy whose hand gets stuck in a puppet. It’s a story about learning to communicate with others, about learning to stand up for yourself and take responsibility for your life. It’s about making new friends, trying new things and putting yourself out there. Mostly it’s about trust and faith, in yourself and in others. It’s a wonderful story for both middle grade children and adults, specifically for children who are struggling with divorce.

The only thing that gave me pause while reading this book, was why Parker hadn’t started doing research about the puppet sooner. Granted, he’s got a lot going on in his life, but if a puppet is stuck on my hand I’d want to know everything about it as soon as possible.  I would have liked to read more background, more mythology, on Drog as a puppet. We glean some information about Drog from his bombastic stories and monologues, but I just wanted more. This was likely done because the focus of the story is not Drog, it’s Parker.  The story isn’t exactly fantasy as much as it is reality fiction about growing up and finding yourself. I also thought the ending was a bit anticlimactic but again, the center of the story is Parker. And for Parker the end is really just the beginning.

Sue Cowing is a Hawaiʻi based author who is very active in the local literary community. She is a member of the SCBWI and will lead several workshops this year. Catch her at the PenWomen’s Conference next weekend or on Maui and the Big Island for the Celebrate Reading Festival. Follow her blog for the latest info and pictures of Drog the puppet in his travels.