June 09, 2011


Charlie the Ranch Dog. By Ree Drummond. Illustrated by Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.

Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog. By Garth Stein. Harper. $6.99.

Dude: Fun with Dude and Betty. By Lisa Pliscou. Illustrated by Tom Dunne. Harper. $14.99.

     Canine adventures happen in all sorts of settings, and are written for readers at many levels. Charlie the Ranch Dog, the first children’s book by cookbook and memoir author Ree Drummond, is a slight and amusing story for kids ages 4-8, with illustrations in the recognizable style of Diane deGroat, best known for her books about Gilbert the possum. Charlie narrates this book without realizing that he is telling tales on himself while thinking he is describing what life is like for the working dogs on a ranch. Charlie, you see, is a bit of a boaster, and he doesn’t really do all that much work – a lot more is done by his best friend, Suzie, a younger dog who is considerably spryer. Charlie mostly likes to take naps, while Suzie enthusiastically runs, digs and jumps (for Charlie, “the old legs just don’t work that way”). Charlie talks about everyday ranch life – keeping the cow out of the yard, chasing critters away from the porch steps, helping at the vegetable garden, going along for the cattle roundup and fence repairs, and more. He doesn’t actually do much of what he discusses, though. Indeed, the accurate descriptions, abetted by deGroat’s pleasant pictures, are also a tale of the misadventures that Charlie, who lacks self-awareness, has all day. He claims to be “known for my expert fishing skills,” for example, but he is the one who ends up in the water with a frog on his head, while Suzie looks on with amusement. Charlie does have something to contribute, though, and earns his keep when he finds himself alone at home as some wayward cows wander into the garden. Pleasantly enough, the book ends with a lasagna recipe – which includes a picture of Charlie looking as if he is about to snap up his (or someone else’s) portion.

     Dogs are common on ranches, but not on the auto-racing circuit. That, however, is where Enzo’s life is focused in Racing in the Rain, an adaptation for readers ages 8-12 of Garth Stein’s adult novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. This book is more for racing fans than for dog lovers, and it tugs at the heartstrings a little too firmly and transparently; it nevertheless gets a (+++) rating, because it offers a moving story with an uplifting (if scarcely unusual) moral about reaching for what you want and never giving up in your quest for it. The tale is about race driver Denny, his daughter ZoĆ«, and of course Enzo, and the way they all learn about the craft of auto racing, its difficulties, setbacks and triumphs. Enzo narrates the book, a common enough device but one that is rather improbable here, because the arrangement becomes creaky at crisis points: “Oh, how I wished I could speak. How I wished for thumbs. I could have grabbed his shirt collar. I could have pulled him close to me and I could have said to him, ‘This is just a crisis. A flash! You are the one who taught me to never give up.’ …But I couldn’t say that. I could only look at him.” Enzo has poetic realizations that are on the verge of being unintentionally funny: “The zebra is something inside of us. Our fears. Our own self-destructive nature. …Then I knew it wasn’t Denny who was signing. It was the zebra!” Old and hobbled, Enzo nevertheless manages to save the day when things seem darkest, and if the eventual heartwarming/heartbreaking conclusion of the book is scarcely unexpected, it is certainly designed for maximum emotional impact.

     Pretty much at the other of the emotional scale is Dude: Fun with Dude and Betty, officially for all ages but likely of most interest for kids in the 4-8 age range. The dog here, Bud, is “a most excellent dog” who goes along with human friends Dude and Betty in some very mild surfing adventures. The main purpose of Lisa Pliscou’s (+++) book is to teach surf-speak: soak up rays, surfer stomp, stokaboka, gnarly, scopes out, wipes out, righteous, non-bogus and other terms appear throughout the book and in the glossary at the end. Without those terms, there would really be no book at all, since there is barely any story: Bud, Dude and Betty are introduced, go to the beach, surf and sunbathe and snack, and – well, that’s it. The slightest hint of conflict is a “gnarly scene” in which Dude’s parents say he should clean his room and do his homework, but instead “it is time to bail” and he, Betty and Bud head for the waves again. Bud actually has more character than Dude and Betty, and often more expressiveness in Tom Dunne’s drawings – as when Dude runs out of snack money while Bud is noticeably hungry. This thin book’s very thin premise may be fun for beginning readers interested in surfing, but there is not much in it for anyone else.

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