Rotten by Michael Northrop

Jimmer Dobbs — who goes by “JD” — just got back into town after being away from the summer. No one really knows why he was gone, but more than that, no one buys his story that he was visiting his aunt. But he’s sticking to it because he’s not yet ready to admit the truth.

When he gets home, JD is greeted by a new addition to his household: a dog. It’s a rottweiler and JD is really skeptical. He’s not really a dog person and even though his mom is really excited about having done a good deed by rescuing this dog who had no other future (and who came from a bad home), JD just can’t get behind it.

Until he names the dog. Johnny Rotten is the full name, but JD refers to him as JR for short. And now that JD has some ownership over the dog, he starts to feel protective of the animal, so when one of his friends gets his hand bitten by JR, JD jumps in to defend the dog at any length he can.

You know how there are those books featuring male main characters in YA who are 16 and they are very smart, very philosophical, and sometimes really edgy and dark and gritty? That’s not the story Michael Northrop writes in Rotten. That’s not to say that JD is a dumb kid. In fact, JD is kind of smart and he’s savvy about how he interacts with his friends, especially when it comes to the truth about how he spent his summer. But the thing is, JD is a dork. He’s a real dork, and he’s funny, and he’s unashamed in being either of those things. He’s not intentionally funny, either. It’s humor delivered in single lines that are so 16-year-old dorky boy. These aren’t cheap shots, as they’re authentic to JD’s voice, and yes, the lines are laugh out loud funny. That ability to deliver humor even in a story that’s not meant to be funny is one thing I really appreciate about Northrop’s writing, and I think it’s what makes his books especially appealing to teen boys.

Someone commented recently about a teen boy in class wanting books that weren’t about “girls with problems” — Rotten is that. Even though JD has problems, they’re not the focus of the story. In fact, his problem is one that’s also somewhat funny.

Before I get there, I should talk a bit more about the fact that one of JD’s friends was hurt by his dog. Johnny Rotten, of course, was an abused dog, and as such, his temperament and his interactions with people are different than a typical dog’s would be. In this instance, he’s sort of skittish, and JD not only recognizes this, but he comes to relate to JR’s skittishness. He becomes protective of the dog. So when his friend (which is a loose term) claims that JR hurt him, JD can’t help but become skeptical. Did his friend provoke the incident or did JR really lash out? What happens when that friend goes to his parents and points out the injury.

You bet the answer is lawsuit.

What I didn’t add to this is that JD lives only with his mom, and the two of them aren’t exactly rich. His mom just barely makes ends meet, so the introduction of a lawsuit brings up the real questions of whether or not they’ll be able to pay for any damages. It’s possible they could lose their house.

It’s also possible that JR may have no future, too.

JD approaches his friend when he realizes all of this, and he makes a deal: if his friend can calm down his parents, he’ll share what it was that got him sent away from home during the summer. The friend is, of course, curious and says he’ll do it. So JD tells him the secret — he’d been sent away for shoplifting.

I won’t talk more about the shoplifting incident because it is during that admission we learn so much about JD and his character.

The question remains then what happens to the lawsuit? And the possibility of losing their home? Worse, what’s the outcome for JR? Does the friend convince his parents to let things go, that he’s okay, and that it’s time to move on?

Rotten is a quick-paced read that will hook younger YA readers, as well as those older YA readers who love a story that has humor in it. There are some references to drinking, but there’s nothing that would make me uncomfortable handing this book to middle grade readers ready for a more advanced story. This is a book for animal lovers, especially those who want a story where the relationship between person and pet isn’t automatic. This is a story about the development of that relationship, which I don’t know I’ve ever read before — I’ve read plenty of stories where the character has a relationship with a pet already or the pet plays a significant role in the story, but never one where the development of that relationship and trust happens. Obviously, one of the biggest reasons JD and JR bond is because they’re both fighting to overcome their own pasts and move forward. It’s sweet without being saccharine or inauthentic.

JD is a good kid, and sometimes, you need to read a story about a good kid. Bonus points for not having a romantic storyline here, too, and even more points for an interesting look at male friendship. Again, I think it’s rare to explore those lines and they’re done well here.

Since I know this is a trigger point whenever there is a story that involves animals: you want to know whether the animal lives or dies. I’m going to tell you, but you have to highlight the rest of this paragraph to know. No worries, animal lovers — this is a story where the dog lives. It’s a really happy and satisfying ending to the story. JD and Johnny Rotten get to continue bonding. 

Rotten is available now from Scholastic. Review copy received from the publisher.

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