Our new book club selection is an honest and heartfelt story from Paul Griffin. The author summarizes the plot succinctly: “This is a book about a boy who saves a pig who thinks he’s a dog.” But, of course, it’s about much more than that. Eleven-year-old Lorenzo Ventura is a dreamer, a musician, and the son of a deceased war hero. He finds joy in playing music with his best friend, Paloma, and in hanging out with his pet pig, Marty, who really does act more like a dog than a pig. But, troubles come in various forms and Renzo finds himself on a journey to save his pig and discover more about himself.
About the Book
Best For: Kids ages 10 – 14.
You’ll Like It If You Like: Realistic fiction, heartwarming and sad stories about family, friendship, or animals.
Major Themes: Overcoming loss, the power of friendship, being a hero.
What It’s About: Lorenzo Ventura lives in a small farming town in Pennsylvania with his mother, his grandfather, known as Double Pop, and his best friend and musical partner, Paloma. Renzo’s dad is a war hero who died when he was only a baby. His main connection to his dad is through music and the guitar his dad left him. Money is tight on their family farm and his mom needs to sell Renzo’s beloved pet pig, Marty, to make ends meet. Renzo tries everything he can to stop this from happening, as Marty is not just an ordinary pig. He is more like a loyal dog and best friend. He does tricks, comes when called, and protects his owners. But, as he approaches 350 pounds, even Renzo admits that Marty could be a problem as a pet.
As money troubles arise at home and Pal leaves to pursue her musical dreams, his friendship with the always-loyal Marty becomes more important than ever. When Renzo discovers new details about his father’s death, he begins a quest to discover the truth about his past while doubling down on his mission to save Marty from being sold.
Why We Picked It: This book has a relatively simple plot but the dynamic and richly drawn characters give it a depth and complexity that are reminiscent of modern classics like Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. Readers get a glimpse into the life of a young man living on a farm in a loving home with considerable financial strain and the sadness of a lost father. The theme of heroes — in and out of war — and what it means to both be a hero and be saved by a hero makes for thoughtful discussion and empathy building. We especially love Marty, a joy-filled character who will delight animal lovers and who adds a bit of levity to a serious book.
Note to Sensitive Readers: This book does tackle difficult issues such as depression, the impact of war, financial strain, and suicide. It is a great book to read together with your child to address and talk through these issues.
The Book Club Meeting
Any good book club meeting must include snacks. Here are a few to enjoy while discussing the book:
- Fresh peaches: If peaches are not in season, perhaps a peach cobbler or something else made with canned peaches to bring the taste of the Ventura family farm to the meeting.
- Peanut butter sandwiches: A simple meal that Renzo ate during the summer.
- Fro-fu (a.k.a. frozen yogurt): Offer a variety including Renzo’s favorite (s’mores), Pal’s favorite (parfait with strawberries, nuts, and strawberries), and Marty’s favorite (vanilla).
This book can be read independently by older kids leading up to a group discussion or consider listening to it as an audiobook as a family. The audiobook includes a performance of all the songs in the book.
- This book is set in a small farming town in southwest Pennsylvania. Compare and contrast this setting to where you live. How is you daily life similar or different than Renzo’s and Pal’s?
- Describe the friendship between Renzo and Pal and the friendship between Renzo and Marty, the pig. How are they the same or different? Discuss a friendship that is important to you and what role you play in the friendship.
- Describe Renzo’s relationship with his mom and his grandfather, Double Pop. How are these relationships different? Who else helps to fill the void left by his dad?
- Early in the book, Double Pop says about Marty, “His family is gone, and he’s a bit lost, trying to fit in. He’s looking for his best friend, and he’s chosen you.” How could this same description apply to Renzo or Pal? Why is it important that Renzo named his pig after his dad?
- We never meet Marty Ventura, Renzo’s dad, but we get to know him through his letters and songs. Describe Marty, the dad, in three words. How do the letters and songs give Renzo a connection to his dad?
- The army has two sayings about heroes, “Heroes go to heaven” and “Don’t be a hero.” What do these mean to you? Are they contradictory? Why or why not?
- On page 104, Renzo asks Pal, “How do you write songs like that? You sang it like you lived it.” What’s a song that makes you feel like it was written for your life? What role does music play in your life?
- How did you feel when Renzo’s mom revealed the truth about what happened to his dad? Is it the answer you were expecting? Was she right in not telling him until now? Discuss Marty Ventura’s last letter to his wife. How could Renzo’s dad be known for the light and joy that he brought others and yet feel such “rain” on the inside?
- By the end of the story, whom does Renzo consider his heroes? There are several characters that either change or are different then they initially seem (e.g. Keeth, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Taylor). Are any of these characters heroes?
- Discuss the meaning of the title and its connection to the themes of heroes and friendship. How does Renzo save Marty? Why does he decide to take him to the Heavenly Hills Animal Sanctuary? How does Marty save Renzo and change his family’s situation? Could the title refer to his dad as well as the pig?
Activities to Dive Deeper into Saving Marty
Explore the Music: The songs written by Paloma and Marty Ventura are an important part of this story. If you’re musically inclined, try playing them on an instrument or singing along to the sheet music in the book. You can listen to the songs on the audiobook version, or check out this sweet video of the author’s daughter singing during a book talk in New York City. Note: In the video, the four songs show up at 6:20, 13:20, 21:10, and 23:10.
Write a Handwritten Letter to Someone You Love: The letters from Marty to his young son are a special memory to Renzo since they are his only connection to his dad. But, letters are special even if you can also call or text that person today. Write a letter to a family member or friend and tell them what they mean to you.
Understanding Veterans: The impact of war and the troubling things that our military veterans see and experience is hard to communicate to kids in an age-appropriate way. Explore resources like this one and this one for ways to talk about veterans and war with your kids. Also, here are a few good picture books that can help start a discussion:
Animal Shelter Recon: Renzo doesn’t want to send Marty to the petting zoo let alone the slaughterhouse, so he does research and finds Heavenly Hills Animal Sanctuary. Research more about animal sanctuaries and what they do. Visit a local animal shelter. Consider donating your time or money to support animal rescue efforts. Check out The Humane Society’s resources to teach kids about this topic.
Watch “Chasing Mavericks”: Discuss why “Chasing Mavericks” is Pal and Renzo’s favorite movie and why it makes them want to move to California. See the Common Sense Media review of this movie to see if it’s appropriate for your family.
What Makes a Hero: Renzo’s teacher asked Renzo and his classmates to write an essay about who their hero is and why. Write your own essay about who your hero is. If it’s someone that is still alive, share your essay with them. Extend this activity by interviewing your hero and share it on the StoryCorps app.
What to Read Next
If you loved this book, here are some other heartfelt realistic fiction stories with depth and soul. Many of these include an animal with the spunk and sweetness of Marty:
Let us know what you thought of Saving Marty in the comments below!