Product Reviews - The Old Schoolhouse


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The Mysterious Backyard Meeting The Locked Doghouse Mystery Review by Jenny Thompson

By Jennifer Swanson
Illustrated by Rosita Schandy, Neal Wooten, and Swapan Debnath
Mirror Publishing
6434 W. Dixon Street
Milwaukee, WI 53214

Penny and Rio were the real-life dogs of owner Jennifer Swanson, who decided to turn their capers into fun stories for children. The result is the Penny and Rio Series, a set of two (soon to be three) chapter books for early readers. The author has rightfully won several awards for this series, which will capture the imagination of young and old alike.

In The Mysterious Backyard Meeting, Penny and Rio have to figure out why some other animals have been meeting in their backyard. The personalities of both dogs come out as Penny works almost frantically to solve the mystery while Rio mostly just naps. Penny finds out that the animals are plotting to break into the house next door, and she decides that she must stop them. Penny learns a lesson about not judging people before you know them as she discovers that Buster the cat is not who she thought he was. The antics of Penny and Rio continue in the next book, The Locked Doghouse Mystery. In this story, a mouse hires the sisters to help him collect his belongings from the doghouse where he used to reside. Learning to work together, Penny and Rio find a way to get into the locked doghouse and, in the process, find a new appreciation for each other.

This series is intended for ages 6-9, or children who are not quite ready for longer chapter books but are ready to move beyond easy readers. My daughter, who is almost 7, is able to read most of the words in these books, but she is intimidated by the amount of words on each page. The pictures are engaging, and the plot in both books is very entertaining. So even if your child is not reading chapter books, he will enjoy having a parent read the books out loud. I love that you can just picture the real Penny and Rio getting themselves into these situations, which makes these characters even more endearing. Jennifer Swanson has included many activities on her website ( that will help homeschoolers create lessons based on the books. Content on the website includes a word search, coloring pages, a stickers sheet, and a bookmark. Swanson is even offering a free curriculum guide with the purchase of The Mysterious Backyard Meeting that contains suggestions for using the books in your classroom.

Though I loved the Penny and Rio series, there is one thing I would change. As I mentioned above, my daughter was not able to read the books because the amount of words on each page scared her away. To truly make these books into "early chapter books," Ms. Swanson may want to consider either paring the stories down, spacing the words out, or making the font bigger. This may not be a hindrance for other kids, but for my little reader it was a deal-breaker. However, I will continue to read these books to my daughter until she is ready to read them on her own.

I can highly recommend this cute dog detective series to all families, especially animal lovers. The Mysterious Backyard Meeting and The Locked Doghouse Mystery will keep your children happily engaged and maybe even inspire them to write their own stories about their pets. We can't wait until the next installment in the Penny and Rio Series comes out later this summer.

Product review by Jenny Thompson, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July 2010