Elf Dog and Owl Head by M. T. Anderson

Clay befriends a strange elf dog in this tale that mixes friendship and the fae.

Elf Dog and Owl Head by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick, 2023, 240 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 8-12

Recommended for: ages 8-12

Clay’s summer starts off in a manner familiar to anyone who lived through the spring and summer of 2020 (and that’s intentional on the part of the author): he’s at home with just his family, sharing a computer with everyone, and waiting out the big sickness that’s descended on the world. But one day, lonely little Clay finds a white dog with elf ears. And the story begins….

Indeed, M. T. Anderson wrote this story inspired by his own experiences during summer, 2020, a summer during which he was alone except for his pet dog.

The elf dog, as Clay thinks of her, bonds immediately with Clay (or so Clay assumes) and together the two begin to roam far and wide. Clay decides to call her Elphinore. But this isn’t your typical dog story. As Clay and the elf dog roam, Clay begins to experience the in-between spaces: moments where he glimpses otherworldly elements. And one day, one of those elements befriends him back, a boy with an owl head, named Amos. The owl head people are strange, but they resemble humans in some of their mannerism and upright walking habits. If it weren’t for their heads, they wouldn’t really resemble birds. But the owl heads are most definitely not human. Regardless, Amos and Clay form a fast friendship.

Amos begins to tell Clay about the folds between the worlds (those aforementioned in-between places). And he tells Clay of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. And more. Despite the fact that Amos has an owl head, Clay doesn’t seem to actually believe these otherworldly forces are real—at least not in the same way his own world is real. Oh, but you see, they are.

Near the end of the story, Amos invites Clay to a party between the worlds on Midsummer’s Eve, the time when all the paths are open and all creatures pass back and forth. Clay’s sister DiRossi joins them. The three wear masks and head off to the festivities. Trials await them that will call forth all their reserves and test their friendship. Even Elphinore will be called upon to make a choice for the people she loves. In the end, Clay must suffer a serious consequence for breaking a serious rule, even though he broke it with good intentions.

This is a strange book and one that some will struggle with. Anderson taps into the lore of the fae, the otherworldly beings that crop up in British and Welsh traditional literature. These are not friendly fairies. Rather, they are often malevolent or, at best, oblivious to humanity and its needs. My thesis advisor, when I was finishing my children’s literature degree at Hollins University, urged me to read the Welsh Mabinogion as part of my research. I didn’t follow through on that until just recently, about the same time as I read Elf Dog and Owl Head. I was shocked! Elf dogs are part of Welsh lore…. May this Newbery Honor winner spur some young people on to do more study as I should have done more than 20 years ago.

Bottom Line: Elf Dog and Owl Head is an intriguing fantasy that will be too strange for some, but delightfully intriguing for others, especially those who’ve been traveling the realms of British and Welsh faerie lore.

Also at Redeemed Reader:

  • A Review: A terrific novel for teens that grapples with life and death decisions and the fae is Perilous Gard.
  • A Review: Jack Zulu, by S. D. Smith, is another recent novel of a boy who sees the spaces between worlds and grapples with malevolent other-worldly elements. Highly recommended!
  • A Review: The Rwendigo Tales are another series that feature kids befriending an animal with significant consequences.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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