Making friends as an adult is so hard. I look at my daughter and the kids at school and see how easily they make friends, sometimes by just asking to play together. I wish it was that easy as an adult. For some kids though, it isn’t easy to make friends, especially if they are neurodivergent. Alex, the main character in Kate Foster’s new middle grade novel, Paws, is autistic. He is desperate to make a friend before he goes to high school, and he’s got a plan to make sure he gets one.
Alex needs to make a friend, and fast. High school is just a few months away and he knows that if he makes a friend, high school will be a lot easier. For Alex though, making friends is really tricky. As an autistic person, he has trouble understanding people, especially when they use a facial expression he’s not familiar with or use a phrase that doesn’t make sense. Dogs are so much easier to understand, especially his cockapoo, Kevin. He always seems to know when Alex needs doggy kisses. Alex wants Jared, one of the popular kids, to be his friend. The Paws dog show is coming to town in five days, and Alex knows that if he can win a trophy with Kevin, Jared will want to be his friend. As the show draws closer, and the unexpected happens at school, Alex trains harder with Kevin. Will Alex win a trophy and make a friend or are friends closer than he thinks?
I absolutely adore Paws! It is a story filled with joy and doggy kisses galore. If I was a dog, I would be wagging my whole body with excitement right now because I love this book so much. It is one of my favourite stories about friendship, because Kate Foster shows us friendship in all its different forms. We see Alex trying to impress someone to try and be their friend, Alex making friends without even realising it, and the best friend relationship that exists between humans and dogs. Kate Foster gives us a glimpse of everyday life, through the eyes of her autistic character. Alex’s confusion about the phrases and facial expressions that neurotypical people in the story use, made me aware that there will be expressions that I use at school that neurodivergent students won’t understand. Reading Paws (and other recent books featuring neurodivergent characters) has made me think about how I can make my library a more friendly space for neurodivergent students.
I love Alex and his quest to make a friend. Alex has trouble understanding people sometimes, especially when they use a facial expression he’s not familiar with (like his teacher wiggling her eyebrows). Him and his dog Kevin though, understand each other perfectly. Alex knows what Kevin needs because he can read his body language, and Kevin knows what Alex needs, especially if he is upset or overstimulated. Dog kisses can solve just about anything! There is a strong bond between Alex and Kevin and it made my heart melt. One of the things that Alex is sensitive to is texture, and one of his favourite textures is the softness of Kevin’s fur and ears. Nuzzling with Kevin brings Alex comfort and calms him down. Kate’s descriptions of Alex rubbing his face in Kevin’s fur made me want my own dog to snuggle with. Alex desperately wants to make a friend, and he tries to make friends with Jared, a boy on his relay team who also loves the same game as him. Jared gives clues, that Alex doesn’t pick up, that he doesn’t want to be friends. The new kid, Derek, also likes the same game as Alex and has a cute dog called Vinnie. Alex becomes so focused on trying to win a trophy at the Paws dog show (to impress Jared so that he’ll be his friend) that he doesn’t realise he is already making friends around him.
The supporting cast of doggy characters in the book are super cute and they made me smile so many times. As well as Alex’s dog, Kevin the cockapoo, there is also Ned’s dog, Dennis the bulldog, and Derek’s dog, Vinnie the Jack Russell. I especially enjoyed the last part of the story with Alex and Derek at the Paws dog show with their dogs. The ending of the story is so perfect and left me grinning from ear to ear. Sarah Davis’ adorable illustration of Kevin on the front cover made me want to see illustrations of the other dogs in the story.
I guarantee that you’ll fall in love with Paws like I did. It will make a wonderful read aloud for Years 5-8. The team at Walker Books Classroom have created some great Book Club Notes to go along with the book too, which includes a Q & A with Kate Foster.