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Elvis and the Underdogs by Jenny Lee
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Elvis and the Underdogs

by Jenny Lee

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“This story starts in a hospital, but don’t freak out. No one died.” Benji feels almost at home in hospitals because he’s been in them so much. Born prematurely, he’s had many ailments, but he’s used to it at the ripe old age of ten. He even has a “personal” nurse named Dino who made him a punch card. After ten hospital visits, he gets a cool prize.

He’s in the hospital again because he passed out. Benji faints a lot, but he usually wakes up seconds later. This time he didn’t, so Dr. Helen is more concerned and proceeds to ruin Benji’s fourth grade life by telling him he must wear a dorky green helmet to cushion future falls. Benji is scandalized. He is already the top target of the school’s worst bully, Billy Thompson, he doesn’t have any friends, and his Mom still calls him “My baby” in front of everyone. Isn’t there another alternative?

Enter Parker Elvis Pembroke IV, Newfoundland extraordinaire, trained as the President’s – yes, THAT president, the White House one - perfect companion. Smart, bossy and full of himself, Elvis mistakenly becomes Benji’s therapy dog. And no ordinary therapy dog, at that. Elvis talks, in human, but only Benji can understand him.

The humor seldom falters in Lee’s first book for children, especially in the voice of Benji, smart and articulate, small and wimpy, kind of heart. I laughed out loud more than once and cheered for Benji and his growing “pack.” Other characters are well-developed, too, including Benji’s Mom and friends, Taisy and Alexander, and of course, Elvis.

The first conversation between Benji and Elvis does not go well. Though they both speak and hear English from one another, they have trouble understanding each other’s worlds and start arguing. Elvis, in his English-butler-like voice, finally says, “Perhaps we should start over. Clearly, we’ve gotten off on the wrong paw, you and I. I was born on a farm in Tennessee and have been trained for the last two years to be the president of the United States’s new dog.” Elvis is obviously a superior being!

Taisy, super athlete and girlie-girl, spouts pearls of wisdom from her sport star father and goal-oriented outlook. “Less talking, more doing!” she says to the hesitant Benji and Alexander as the trio approaches the bully’s turf in search of Benji’s lucky lug nut. “… if he doesn’t have it, we’ll keep looking. But at least we can say we tried. Life is about trying!” And my favorite, Taisy’s motto when she doubts herself, “Breathe and believe. I know it sounds simple, but it works. You have to believe you can do anything, and that everything will work out how it’s supposed to. Just believe. Breathe and believe. Breath and believe.” Sage words, and ones that I would do well to heed in my own moments of doubt.

Alexander’s photographic memory both helps and hinders, but it is his loyalty and budding sense of adventure that gives him substance. Explaining his boring, over-structured life to Benji, he, too, offers some astute words: “Having you guys think my freaky brain is useful for our super-awesome adventure? Well, this is stuff I only dreamed of doing.” Maybe we won’t find your lucky lug nut, he continues, but hopefully we will. “Did you know it’s a known fact that people who are optimists live longer?” His spirit helps Benji to realize that he needs an attitude adjustment. “Maybe I did need a pack of friends to give me a whole new perspective on the world.”

One thing that disturbed me was Benji's assumption that Billy Thompson was a hopeless case and would end up in jail when he was older. Yes, Billy was a bully, but he did help save Benji’s life. The fact that he played music so well and was more sensitive than Benji ever thought bodes well for him. I would hope that, over time, and with continued respect from Benji and his friends, that Billy's behavior would improve. I don't like to assume that someone that young is already a lost cause.

Benji’s Mom is overbearing, but understandably so; her child almost died as an infant. She is also hilarious, and though Benji doesn’t always appreciate being called “my baby” and kissed tens of times, he understands her: “Here’s what you need to know about my mom. She’s blond, she’s got big hair, and she’s loud. She tells people that she was a bear in her former life, because she likes to eat, she likes to sleep, and if you threatened any of her cubs, she’ll hunt you down and mess you up.” Her final words to Benji encapsulate key themes of love and courage and bring the novel home.

Highly recommended, as Lee says in her dedication “for every kid who loves to laugh” – and, I would add, for every adult, too. ( )
  bookwren | Jul 26, 2013 |
Benji has always been small and sickly. He also has a tendency to faint when he gets scared or overexcited. He's pretty much accepted his life as a loner until one day in fourth grade he's watching the school bully pick on a new kid and trying to figure out how he's going to get away without being seen when he faints...and wakes up in the hospital. Again. The doctor gives him two options - safety helmet or therapy dog. Despite his impassioned protests, his mom decides it's the helmet until, just as Benji predicted, it turns out to be a disaster. Only a few weeks later his therapy dog arrives.

He turns out to be a giant, black Newfoundland. Who talks. Parker Elvis Pembroke IV informs Benji that he is really the president's new dog, but he agrees to stick around for a while until things get sorted out. At first they don't get along at all; Elvis is very prickly and a show-off and Benji doesn't think he needs anything to make him stick out anymore - like a giant talking dog that only he can hear - but eventually the two become close friends. By the time Elvis heads off to the White House, Benji has the first real friends he's ever had and a new outlook on life.

I did laugh quite a bit reading this and enjoyed it, but I don't think I'll buy it for the library. For a book about fourth graders (which means the audience will be mostly third grade) 300 pages is way, way too long. Even for fourth-fifth grade that's long. The author is apparently a writer for a popular Disney kids show and there's a definite cinematic feel to the story, but what works on the tv screen doesn't necessarily work in print. There are a lot of inner monologues which I found funny as an adult reader but I think most children would get bogged down in them. There's also a lot going on - a popular girl athlete who wants to be able to do girly things and not devote her whole life to sports, childhood illness, bullies, a stereotypical nerd, etc. The plot device of the talking dog felt very immature and while it fits with the character of Benji, I don't think it would go over well with readers. Finally, one thing struck me as very out of sync. Even after the doctor explains what Benji's illness is (idiopathic epilepsy) he continues to call it "fainting" throughout the book. Of course every child is different, but every kid I've met with any kind of disability or illness has always been very specific in saying what their condition is - I think it's recommended to parents as a way for kids to take some control of their illness maybe, but I don't remember where I saw that.

Verdict: Final conclusion - the bones of a good and very funny story are here, but it could have done with a lot more editing and a better idea of who the audience is in my opinion. Actually, you could have just removed the entire talking dog and White House aspect of the story and it would have been better (and shorter).

ISBN: 9780062235541; Published May 2013 by Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins; ARC provided by the publisher at ALA Midwinter 2013
  JeanLittleLibrary | Jun 22, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jenny Leeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Light, KellyIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For every kid who loves to laugh, especially Benjamin, Addison, Olivia, Dustin, Annabel, & Georgia.
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This story starts in a hospital, but don't freak out.
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Breathe and believe. I know it sounds simple, but it works. You have to believe you can do anything, and that everything will work out how it's supposed to. Just believe. Breath and believe. Breathe and believe. (p. 291)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0062235540, Hardcover)

The Story Behind the Story:Elvis and the Underdogs

Doozy as a puppyDooxy and Finn

When I got my dog Doozy, a Newfoundland, she was a twelve-week-old puppy and already weighed 35 pounds. Every day I walked her on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, California, and like all puppies, she got stopped a lot by random strangers who wanted to say hello to the giant puppy. Since Newfoundlands are such large dogs, they are not very common, and everywhere I walked, people would tell me there was another black Newfy puppy, a boy named Finn, who lived in the area. Over and over this kept happening, but months passed and Doozy and I never once saw this mysterious neighboring Newfy.

Six months went by, and one day Doozy and I were walking along 14th Street when a giant white SUV stopped in the middle of the road, the driver’s side window rolled down, a giant mass of blond curls came out the window, and someone bellowed, “Is that Doozy?! Hey you! Is that Doozy?!” I was a little weirded out because she literally stopped traffic to yell at me, and cars were starting to pile up behind her. So I said, “Yes, this is Doozy.” And she yelled, “I’m going to pull over ahead. I’ve got Finn in the back!” And just like that Doozy and I finally met Finn and Nadine.

Doozy is now six years old and weighs 110 pounds; Finn is her boyfriend/best friend, and he weighs 160 pounds. Nadine and I have also become best of friends (but never you mind about how old we are and how much we weigh!). Nadine is absolutely the inspiration behind Benji’s mom in all the best ways. She has great hair, she’s funny and loud, and she’s a supercool mom to her actual kids and to her two Newfies (Finn now has a sister named Kimba). And, of course, my love of Doozy and Finn (and all Newfies) is the muse behind Elvis. I’m one of those dog owners who talk to their dogs sometimes (you know, the normal crazy-dog-owner amount . . . not the Houston-we-have-a-problem crazy amount). And if I was ever granted three wishes, I’d absolutely use one of them so Doozy and Finn could talk back. (And in case you were wondering, my second wish would be for a magic cake box that I could open every day and a different delicious cake would appear. And the jury is still out on my third wish, but I’ll keep you posted.)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:01 -0400)

All his life Benji, now ten, has been sickly and he has long been targeted by the school bully, but after a seizure Benji gets a therapy dog that is not only big enough to protect him, it can also talk.

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