Girl of the Year 2007: Nicki

Author: Ann Howard Creel
Illustrator: Doron  Ben-Ami


Ten-year-old Nicki likes to help people, but has trouble saying no. With a younger brother who's learning new math concepts, her mother expecting twins, and her family living on a ranch in Colorado (so, lots of chores), that means it's very easy for Nicki to spread herself too thin. When her mom asks for help training the service dog she committed to before finding out she was having twins, Nicki tries to get those two letters out, but in the end agrees. At school later that day, she also can't say no to her teacher when asked to help plan the end-of-the-year gala. 

Even though Nicki knows she's taking on a lot, she thinks her new responsibilities will be rewarding. But the gala planning quickly goes downhill: two new and very popular girls, Kris and Heather, are also on the planning committee, and want extravagant things like a snake charmer. When Nicki points out the logistical issues (like, no funding from the school for performers), they act hurt and wonder what Nicki has against them. They quickly take over the planning, leaving Nicki worried that the gala will be a huge mess.

But that weekend Nicki gets to spend Saturday skiing with her best friend, Becca, and on Sunday the dog arrives. Sprocket is a Bernese mountain dog mix (Astrid of Grenville, what have you been doing?) about eight months old, adopted from a shelter. He's very intelligent and shows a lot of potential to be a service dog. The dog is very cute, but he's going to need a LOT of training. The training slowly starts working, but Nicki misses out on skiing and shopping trips with Becca. Nicki's glad she's doing the training with her mom's help.

Of course, then her mom's blood pressure starts going up, and her obstetrician orders bed rest. Now Nicki's going to be training Sprocket on her own. But Sprocket surprises Nicki during his first outing, at the library. He behaves very well for the most part. And he helps bridge the gap between Nicki and Kris and Heather, who Nicki had met there to work on planning the gala. Nicki's growing very fond of Sprocket--which concerns her because she knows that in about seven months she'll have to give him up.

But for now, Sprocket's training is going so well that Nicki's parents declare both she and the dog can take a day off. Nicki gets to go skiing one last time with Becca, before the snow melts too much. Soon after, the gala planning committee even agrees on a theme, and better yet, it's Nicki's idea: a mountain meadow at night. Kris is especially enthusiastic about it, but Heather still seems reticent to like anything Nicki says. And Sprocket continues to progress in his training.

And, naturally, things go back downhill again. Becca is upset with Nicki for taking on too much and not having time for her. Nicki forgets a planning meeting, giving Heather ammunition for snide comments. But it's not all bad: Nicki's mom is off bedrest, Nicki gets to go horseback riding with her dad, and Kris calls Nicki, not for any planning, but just to invite her over as a friend. Nicki is too busy to go, but she appreciates the offer of friendship. 

The next time Nicki sees Kris is at a planning session at Heather's house. Nicki is happy find herself getting along with both girls, and they get the details for the gala hammered out. Heather says they're going to celebrate having the gala all planned, and invites some other popular girls over. The other girls, aside from Kris, don't understand that they can't treat Sprocket like a pet (Nicki had permission to bring him). Nicki struggles to find the words to stand up for herself and for Sprocket, but Heather keeps insisting that letting him be a puppy for one night won't hurt him. She pressures Nicki to stay instead of calling her dad for a ride home, saying they (that is, the popular group) thought Nicki could be cool. Part of Nicki wants to avoid confrontation and accept this invitation into the cool group, but she can't let Sprocket down, or the person he'll be a service dog for. Finally, she says, "No." Heather quickly cools to her, and soon Nicki's dad picks her up.

At home, Nicki's mom and brother ask for help with the dishes and schoolwork, respectively. Now that she's said no once, and really needs just a moment to herself, Nicki finds it easier to say no again. Her dad understands, and tells the rest of the family to give her some space. Nicki calls Becca, who turns out to have been worried that Nicki was abandoning her for cooler friends. The two agree that other people can be fun to hang out with (Becca's been spending time with a girl named Emily) but nothing beats the good times the two of them have together. The next day at school, the teacher in charge of the gala congratulates Nicki, Kris, and Heather on coming up with a great plan. Heather barely even looks at Nicki, but Kris apologizes for not standing up for Nicki. She says the invitation to come for dinner sometime is still open, and promises it won't turn into a party and that she and her family will respect Sprocket's training. 

The night of the gala comes, and Nicki brings Sprocket, so he can practice being around large crowds. He performs admirably, and Nicki is sure that soon he'll be a real service dog.

True Stories

Celia and Abby are training a service dog named Elan, through an organization called Canine Companions for Independence. They'll work with Elan for eighteen months before handing him off to the next step.


Dedicated to "Jessica and Kelly and all dog lovers everywhere."

There are pigs and horses on the ranch. Nicki's family raises the pigs to sell.

The twins are known to be identical very early in the pregnancy, so it sounds like they might share a placenta or an amniotic sac.

Even though the book is narrated in the first person, a caption under a picture reads, "'Me?' Nicki asked..."

I like that Nicki's mom explains a little bit about different kinds of service dogs. I've met three people with service dogs, and none of them were blind. One was deaf, one had cerebral palsy, and one had a condition that made it difficult for her do certain types of physical labor like switching the laundry (yes, her dog knew how!)...rheumatoid arthritis or chronic fatigue syndrome? I can't remember.

The very end of the book has some guidelines for interacting with people who use service dogs. Included are the important ones, like don't assume you can play with the dog and remember that it's working, not acting as a pet, and don't intrude on the person's privacy by asking what sort of disability the dog helps with.

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