Duke | Kirby Larson | Book Review

Straight up, I am partial to books with dogs on the cover, even though to be honest, they kind of scare me. I get nervous because OMG what if the dog dies? So, y’all, I obtained Duke by Kirby Larson at BEA 2013. It’s a middle grade historical fiction book and of course, there is a German Shepherd on the cover. I knew that I was dying to read it, yet also scared because how the heck would I handle that beautiful cover dog who looks like dogs that I love dying? So, I kept on putting the book off. Of course, once I read it I finished it in a single sitting and realized, oh hey, this is a book aimed at small children and is being published in a time when we treat children as though they are fragile. I stopped worrying and put my rational hat on. Turns out, Duke by Kirby Larson is not a bad book at all.

Duke by Kirby Larson | Good Books And Good Wine

The plot of Duke is relatively simple to follow. It is World War II. At home in America, Hoby is missing his father who is flying missions as a pilot overseas in Europe. Hoby is in the fifth grade and finds that he does not have the same sort of courage as the other men in his family. His German Shepherd named Duke is his best friend and even fights off bullies for him. Oh and Hoby fits in very well with his class. He spends his afternoons playing baseball and listening to radio shows with his little sister June. He also eagerly awaits letters from his dad. One day, Hoby hears a segment on the radio about this program called Dogs For Defense which involves people donating use of their pet dogs for the war effort as guard dogs and more. This puts Hoby into a dilemma because he loves Duke so much he does not want to let him go. Yet, Hoby finds himself driven to lend Duke to Dogs For Defense. Along the way, he makes a new friend, he also finds himself really regretting his decision. Will Duke live? Obviously you need to think really hard about the age group of this book to answer that question.

Thinking about this about a week or so after reading, I have to say that the main character of Larson’s Duke, Hoby, is interesting in that he’s written with some moral ambiguity. I mean, Hoby really does not know what he wants to do. He wavers on his decision. I liked that it was not an easy choice for him and that he struggles with it. I liked that he struggled to find courage as well. I liked that he made mistakes. What’s also great about his characters and great I think for the kids that read this is that in the end, Hoby grows and truly does develop ‘character’. He learns courage. It’s kind of a nice lesson to see someone act so selflessly and to see it portrayed as something that is HARD to do yet ultimately worth it.

What’s cool about this book is that if you are a history buff, it portrays a part of history that I always find intriguing — World War II, but more specifically the home front. Like, this is weird of me to say, but can you guys imagine a time when people are patriotic and ALL pitch in for the war effort? Can you imagine people unifying and agreeing to things like rationing? Or donating their pets? Donating their model airplanes? Using allowance to buy war stamps? It’s sort of beyond my scope of understanding, but I just like the idea of it. I am sure in real life it was vastly different from what is portrayed in fiction, but I just sort of like the idea of we are all in this together to support our troops and we will sacrifice so that they have what they need. I just like that.

Duke by Kirby Larson is the perfect book for the young reader interested in dogs and World War II, yet who also might be struggling to find their voice. It’s a book that shows even if something is hard, if it is the right thing to do it will ultimately be worth. And for real? Who does not love stories of a boy and his dog?

Disclosure: Review Copy Obtained At BEA 2013

Other reviews of Duke by Kirby Larson:

Becky’s Book Reviews – “I loved the historical details

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.
About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. Whenever there’s a pet that is heavily featured I spend the whole book worrying about it, I read one recently where the dog did not die and I was SO happy 🙂

    This sounds like a wonderful story for kids, and I too love reading about WW2. And I do think it would be so different to see people really coming together in that sort of situation.

    • I kind of wish that books with pets heavily featured came with a little warning or spoiler alert on the back cover so that way I would know that either the pet dies or it doesn’t and so I shouldn’t spend the whole book worry and just enjoy the story.

      It’s hard for me to imagine people coming together like that today, to be honest. Maybe though, it could happen.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about books with dogs on the cover. I can’t handle reading books about animals dying. There is actually an interesting middle grade book called No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. You might like it, April. It’s about this student who says he’s had it being forced to read books where the dog dies.

    Anyway, I’m really glad you liked this one.