January 26

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Review of Stella by McCall Hoyle – Review by Millicent Flake

My new granddog Maisy spent the first six months of her life in an animal shelter. When my son and his wife brought her home, she was fearful of everything. She is a sweet girl and wanted to be good but didn’t know exactly what was expected of her. She wasn’t sure where she should sit, or how to let someone know that she needed to go outside to ‘squat.’  Going in and out of doors spooked her, and she was hesitant around new people. She often retreated to the security of her crate, looking sad and confused.

I thought about Maisy as I read Stella, McCall Hoyle’s first book for middle schoolers. Stella is a beagle who lived a happy and fulfilled life with her beloved handler Connie. They worked as a team at the airport, where Stella’s job was to sniff out bombs and other dangerous items. But one fateful day Stella fails to find a bomb that explodes, killing Connie and leaving Stella traumatized.

As the novel begins, Stella is living with a foster parent and struggling to understand what has happened to take Connie away from her. She wants to be a good dog, but she is sometimes overcome with anxiety and panic attacks. All she wants is to be returned to Connie and the life she knew.

Esperanza, an experienced dog trainer, decides to give Stella one more chance to be rehabilitated. She takes her to what seems to Stella like an unusual park — one with stones sticking out of the ground and the smell of empty human shells. Stella sniffs out a Connie smell, but realizes it is no longer the Connie she knew and loved. Esperanza explains that Connie is not coming back. Stella feels that it was her fault for not finding the exploding bomb. The weight of guilt over not saving the one person she loved more than anyone else in the world hangs over her, and she knows that she is a “bad dog.”

Esperanza takes Stella home to her ranch, where she can begin the road to healing. Here she encounters strange fluffy white creatures grazing in a field; a dog named Nando who has the job of keeping the white creatures together; and Cloe, Esperanza’s daughter, who immediately befriends Stella and is determined to help her get past her fears.

Despite Cloe’s happy demeanor and patient and loving way, Stella notices a strange chemical smell coming from her at times. We soon learn that while Cloe is there to help Stella, the beagle may be able to provide an important service to the girl. When Cloe ends up in a dangerous situation, Stella must move past her own fear to save “her girl.”

McCall Hoyle did not shy away from the very real emotions faced by adolescents in her previous novels for young adults, The Thing with Feathers and Meet the Sky. With warmth and compassion, she lets Stella tell her story of struggling with grief, fear, and remorse.

Although the death of a loved one and dealing with the aftereffects of trauma are heavy topics, Hoyle keeps a light tone with Stella’s observations of the humans around her— like wondering why they worry about keeping their carpets clean and why they like to drink water steeped in black beans. Stella’s indomitable spirit and devotion to Cloe keep us rooting for her, even as the people around her do not always understand what is going through her doggie mind.    Young teens will relate to Stella’s frustration at not being able to communicate her needs with the adults in her life who sincerely want to help.

Hoyle has brought us a story of hope and healing that is needed in books for older children and young teens. With gentleness and empathy, she lets her readers know that second chances do come, even though doing the right thing can be scary.

Stella has been selected for the 2022-2023 Texas Bluebonnet Award list for students in grades 3-6.

McCall Hoyle is an award winning writer and middle school teacher librarian, who thinks she has the best job in the world. She enjoys spending time with her husband and children, and training her golden retriever Apple, who sometimes works as a show dog. Stella is her third book. Visit her at www.mcallhoylebooks.com or on Instagram @mccallhoylebooks for Stella trailers and information on virtual author visits.

Millicent Flake is a retired school media specialist who loves having time to write, read and visit her granddog Maisy. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a group of teens who form a rock band in the 1970’s. Check out her blog, Under the Magnolia Tree, at www.maflake.com.