Sounder is an interesting book. It’s cast as a dog book, in the vein of Old Yeller or Shiloh or something, but it’s really much more about the boy than it is about the dog. However, it’s probably significant that the dog is the only thing in the book that has a name—there’s the boy, his siblings, his mother, his father, and the teacher, and the dog is the only thing with a name. And it’s probably significant that the dog’s name is “Sounder,” and that he only “sounds” when the family is whole and together. He remains silent when the boy’s father is gone.
This book isn’t happy, but it’s not quite sad, either. There’s a certain tragedy about it, yes, but the sad events are told so matter-of-factly that it creates a distance. And the book seems much more concerned with the growth of the boy than of lingering on injustice. The book is really about the day-to-day that takes place amidst injustice, and how families try and go about their daily lives even though things have changed inexplicably. Time is a bit hard to grasp, but the book, which is barely over 100 pages, takes place over years of the boy’s life, years spent waiting and searching for his father’s return, years where Sounder does not sound.
I’m honestly quite hard-pressed to find a clear-cut message in this book. Instead, the book is really focused on metaphor and symbolism, unless I’m really taking the Sounder and names thing too far, and much less concerned with getting some sort of idea across. That makes Sounder unique for a Newbery Medal book, but not as immediately or clearly relevant as, say, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, or even M. C. Higgins, the Great. It’s also not too great a sell as a profound dog book, either. Sounder is unique and somewhat interesting, but I think most young readers will find it difficult to grasp and enjoy.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Warnings: Racial slurs, descriptions of bad wounds, violent thoughts.