October 04, 2012
(++++) PETS? NOT EXACTLY
Dog Loves Drawing. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.
Cecil, the Pet Glacier. By Matthea Harvey. Illustrated by Giselle Potter. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Ready for Pumpkins. By Kate Duke. Knopf. $16.99.
Day by Day. By Susan Gal. Knopf. $16.99.
Dinosaurs: In Your Face! By Robert T. Bakker. Illustrated by Luis V. Rey. Random House. $9.99.
We tend to think of dogs as pets – a perfectly reasonable thought – but dogs in children’s books often go well beyond “petness.” In Dog Loves Drawing, for ages 4-8, the title character goes almost all the way into the rarefied atmosphere of Crockett Johnson’s classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon. Dog, who loves to read and first appeared in Dog Loves Books, gets a blank book as a gift from his Aunt Dora – and realizes it is a sketchbook. So he gets some drawing materials (beautifully pictured: Louise Yates is both a top-notch writer and a fine illustrator) and draws a door. Then, in the grand tradition of Harold, he steps through what he has drawn and into the book’s pages. Then he draws a stickman, and the two of them doodle for a while, and then Dog draws a duck who draws an owl who draws a crab, and the adventure is off and running – running all over the pages, in fact. There’s a train journey and a boat trip and some hand-drawn food and a visit to an island and even – oops – a monster, which chases everyone all around until Dog thinks to draw, once again, a door, through which he escapes. The other characters are fine, too. Yates does a superb job of contrasting the well-drawn Dog, the bookshop he operates, the shop’s customers, Aunt Dora, and the drawing implements with the very childishly drawn characters and adventures that Dog creates (and that then create new things themselves). A wonderful adventure both in reading and in art, Dog Loves Drawings is lovable from start to finish.
Cecil turns out to be lovable, too, but if we usually think of dogs as pets, we do not usually think of glaciers in that role. Well, Cecil is a very small glacier, but still – in any case, he becomes attached to Ruby Small, a normal little girl with three dolls dressed exactly like herself and two parents who are as strange as Ruby is ordinary: Ruby’s father makes topiary animals and her mother creates tiaras, wearing a different one every day. The oddly assorted family takes a trip to Norway (because of a misunderstanding by Ruby’s parents when Ruby says “no way”), and they see a glacier that is calving, and one piece – shaped like swirled soft-serve ice cream – adopts Ruby, who has wanted a pet (a dog, in fact). Ruby does not want the little glacier, which tries unsuccessfully to make friends with her – it turns out to be up to Ruby’s mom to feed Cecil pebbles (he will eat black or white ones but not gray ones), water him at night, put him in a cooler to stay cold, and groom him every week to remove the trash he picks up while sliding along the road. The scenes of Cecil trying to fit in with the family (and a truly odd family it is, even without a glacial pet) are wonderfully drawn by Giselle Potter, whose illustrations capture the flavor of Matthea Harvey’s words perfectly. Eventually, Cecil braves a rainstorm (rain is too warm for him and causes him to melt) to rescue one of Ruby’s dolls, and Ruby realizes how special he is after all, so she takes care of him and nurses him back to icy health – and everything ends happily, if rather weirdly, in another delightful book for the 4-8 age range.
The story of Hercules (Herky), the guinea-pig pet in Miss MacGuffey’s first-grade classroom, is for roughly the same age range – 5-8 in this case – and features an animal that straddles the line between pet and non-pet behavior. Like Cecil, Herky lives as a pet, but like Dog, Herky has his own non-pet life. Herky goes to Miss MacGuffey’s father’s farm for the summer, and he has a plan: he has saved pumpkin seeds ever since the previous Halloween, and he wants to grow his own pumpkins. Herky meets a friendly rabbit named Daisy, and the two plant seeds together, since “Daisy knows all about gardens” and can help Herky do things the right way. Daisy can also help the impatient guinea pig learn patience: Herky yells at the seeds, jumps up and down on the ground, stamps his feet, and digs the seeds up to check on them – until Daisy explains that even though “waiting is hard,” it is necessary. The two friends sing pumpkin songs, tell pumpkin stories and make up pumpkin poems to pass the time, until eventually the seeds sprout and grow. And then Herky discovers that birds, beetles and rabbits, including Daisy, like to eat pumpkin plants! But there is enough for everyone to share, and Herky learns that “a garden is not a place to be angry in.” At the start of the new school year, Herky returns to class, with the pumpkins not yet ripe – but Miss MacGuffey’s father discovers the pumpkin patch and brings a pumpkin to the classroom, giving Herky a real sense of accomplishment and a plan to save seeds and grow a new garden the following year. Kate Duke’s story and drawings practically ooze charm, and the way Herky brings his gardening discoveries back to the classroom – including the knowledge that “you can’t stay sad for long when you have had a garden” – is the most charming of all.
Gardening figures in Day by Day, too, but is only one part of Susan Gal’s homespun tale of a family of pigs moving to a new place, building a home and settling in. That is the whole plot of this book for ages 5-9 – which is to say there is not much plot at all. Day by Day is simply about family and neighborhood, with pigs as the protagonists in a story that could just as easily be built around other animals – or, for that matter, people. Meeting neighbors, working together on that garden, watching vegetables grow, harvesting after the seasons change – everything is as mundane as it can be in this simple story of a simple life. There are some amusing elements, as when “pigs shed their clothes” to reveal that they wear underwear, then do cannonballs into a mud hole rather than a swimming pool. A Thanksgiving feast and celebratory dance end a story that sweetly and gently displays the delights of family and community.
As you would expect, there is nothing sweet and gentle in Dinosaurs: In Your Face! But as you would probably not expect in a 3-D book for ages 3-7, there is a lot of information here – considerably more than children in this age group usually get in factual books. The reason is the author: Robert T. Bakker, the well-known and long-controversial paleontologist largely responsible for promoting the now-generally-accepted theory that dinosaurs were endothermic (“warm-blooded”) rather than ectothermic (“cold-blooded”). Bakker has a gift for communicating complex paleontological information in easy-to-understand language, and his ability is fully on display here, abetted by careful Luis V. Rey drawings that not only show what dinosaurs may have looked like but also give an idea of their size – for instance, by showing a comparatively small elephant in the corner of one page. The 3-D elements of the book are fine – neither better nor worse than in other books requiring readers to wear the included 3-D glasses. But the best features of the book have nothing to do with dimensionality. For example, there is a “you are here” timeline that runs from the Triassic period to the age of mammals, with arrows indicating the era portrayed on each page. There are accurate names of all dinosaurs discussed and pictured, with pronunciation guides, and text that is simple but not simplistic: “The earliest dinosaurs were little meat-eaters, like Chindesaurus (CHIN-dee-saw-rus). It lived in the Late Triassic Period. Chindesaurus had to be careful. Giant meat-eaters like Smilosuchus (SMY-luh-SOOK-us), a relative of crocodiles, liked to eat these small early dinosaurs.” Dinosaur behavior is compared to and contrasted with that of modern animals, including birds, turtles and others, and Bakker’s explanation of the relationship between birds and dinosaurs is especially well-done. The book has separate sections on dinosaurs, dino babies and “prehistoric monsters,” with everything presented so interestingly that this book could easily inspire some young children to become paleontologists themselves – or at least to do more reading about dinosaurs and fossil hunters such as Bakker.