No Better Friend: Young Readers Edition: A Man, a Dog, and Their Incredible True Story of Friendship and Survival in World War II

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
No Better Friend: Young Readers Edition: A Man, a Dog, and Their Incredible True Story of Friendship and Survival in World War II Book Poster Image
Remarkable account of dog and radar man in POW camp.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

No Better Friend includes lots of World War II history, including explanations of prisoner-of-war camps and the Geneva Conventions and plenty of first-person perspective. Survivors share their vivid stories of bombings, shipwrecks, and the hardships of prison life. Descriptions of Southeast Asian locations and details about the local flora, fauna, and cultures, such as, "A huge portion of the Sumatran rain forest today is gone, cut down in the name of profit, a practice called 'clear-cutting.' During the time Judy picked her way through the trees, this hadn't yet begun in earnest, leaving the wild growth unspoiled. Beautiful rare orchids grew under towering bamboo trees anchored by enormous roots. In the undergrowth, carnivorous plants called monkey cups snacked on unlucky insects."

Positive Messages

Strong messages of kindness, courage, loyalty, perseverance, and creative problem-solving in the face of horrible conditions, along with some jarringly dated viewpoints. Based on the decades-old accounts of former POWs who survived many atrocities, the narrative tends to make unfiltered, sweeping generalizations about "the Japanese" and others, which will probably require a bit of critical discussion about whether, and when, it's appropriate to generalize about a group of people. One example is: "The main source of fear along the railway was not the Japanese -- it was the Koreans. ... Overall, they were much more violent, cruel, and unpredictable than the Japanese, who mainly mistreated the POWs by starving them and working them till they dropped."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Frank and Judy show strong loyalty and devotion to each other, caring for each other, finding each other food, keeping each other out of danger. Many survivors credit the dog's courage, determination, and quick wits with saving their lives, from maritime disasters to jungle POW camps. Prisoners are often courageous in dealing with abuse and hardship and find ways to help one another. Many of their captors are uncaring or cruel but sometimes show unexpected kindness.

Violence

When things are at their worst, Frank considers killing Judy and himself. It's wartime, and there are many incidents of shipwrecks, bombings, shootings, and many forms of violent death that befall individual characters and large groups of women, children, and prisoners, as well as soldiers in combat. Captors are often viciously cruel to prisoners, starving, beating, and even shooting them. Judy is in constant danger of being shot to death and suffers assorted injuries in her efforts to protect her humans, including being attacked by a crocodile. Prisoners (including Judy) attack, kill, and eat animals, including cute ones. Descriptions of horrible conditions include: "If a leech was pulled off once it attached itself, there was not only pain but an open wound to contend with. In that climate, the wound would fester into a tropical ulcer in no time. Jock, the Scotsman, found a leech on his groin early in the march. He had to grit his teeth and singe the leech off, managing not to permanently injure himself in the process." 

Sex

Over the course of her life, Judy has three litters of puppies.

Language

Occasional use of "Jap" in a direct quote.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink and smoke. Guards sometimes get drunk and abuse the prisoners.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that author Robert Weintraub's young-reader adaptation of his best-selling No Better Friend is the true story of a young British serviceman and an English pointer with excellent survival skills who meet in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. It offers many thrilling moments as Frank and Judy escape death time after time and give each other, as well as their fellow prisoners, the courage to go on. Along the way, there's a lot of historic detail and background information. Since the story takes place during World War II, it includes the violent deaths and injuries of prisoners, women, and children as well as military. In the course of describing various atrocities, it often describes the perpetrators as "the Japanese," offering plenty of opportunity to discuss overly broad, dated stereotypes -- and, perhaps, how to deal with first-person historic accounts that include them.

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What's the story?

In the wake of World War II, young RAF radar man Frank Williams and Judy the English pointer returned home after years in Southeast Asia as prisoners of war. Soon Williams and many of his fellow survivors were telling anyone who would listen of Judy's remarkable loyalty, cleverness, and courage in keeping them alive through shipwrecks and starvation. Judy would eventually become a British "Hero Dog" and receive the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Author Robert Weintraub told Frank and Judy's story for an adult audience in the original NO BETTER FRIEND; now he offers a young-reader adaptation full of historic detail, danger, deprivation, death -- and a loyal friendship that survives it all.

Is it any good?

A new generation of readers learns the inspiring true story of a wily, heroic dog and her fellow POWs in WWII, especially her lifesaving adventures and lifelong bond with a young RAF radar man. Along the way, there's a wealth of historic background, with plenty of detail about the horrors of war (from death to dysentery) and the perils of jungle and sea -- all of which will probably delight history buffs and bore readers who just want a good dog story. Somewhat oddly, given the heavily historic narrative and first-person accounts, author Weintraub often treats speculation as fact where there's an unanswerable question or gap in the story, e.g.:

"With Frank, things were different from the start. It was a love story. Perhaps Judy sensed how caring and giving Frank's gesture was. A starving man was going hungry so that she could eat his rice. No wonder she fell head over heels for him."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories of heroic dogs who risk their own lives to help and save people. It's a popular subject for fiction -- but there are also many examples in real life. Which others have you heard about?

  • What do you know about World War II? Do you know about the experiences of people in your family during that time?

  • How do you feel when you hear words such as "Jap," which were common at the time of this story but are considered racist today? 

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