September 26, 2013
(++++) MUCH ADO ABOUT ANIMALS
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. By Kate Bernheimer. Illustrated by Jane Parker. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Dog Loves Counting. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $17.99.
Dog Diaries #3: Barry. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by Tim Jessell. Random House. $6.99.
Mice get to be protagonists of their own stories often enough in children’s books, but when they are subsidiary characters, as often as not they just get in the way. Kate Bernheimer obviously knows this, because she has rung some delightful changes on the “mouse persona” for kids by making the rodents – who are foils for the title character – intrusive and irritating, but at the same time thoroughly enjoyable and adorable. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair is a gently surreal story about just what the title says: a girl with super-long hair who washes it regularly but does not like to brush it, with the result that it becomes thoroughly tangled and soon looks to some mice like an ideal place for them to live. And not just live – they end up building a palace (complete with “a tiny circular moat”) atop the girl’s head. Now, you might think this would be undesirable, but the girl doesn’t. She had “read enough fairy tales to remember that mice always turned out to be your helpers,” so she welcomes the mice as they arrive one by one, and then in groups, and eventually in droves. Jane Parker’s wonderful illustrations show the dark-haired, wide-eyed girl – whose motto is “It’s just my way” and who is especially fond of her hairless baby doll, Baby – reacting to and interacting with the mice as the population of her hair grows and grows. The adults in the book, including the girls’ parents, are seen as shadowy figures or from behind, and they are minor presences, although her mother does refuse to pack the mice lunch and thus force the girl to share her own food with them to the point that “she found herself very hungry.” Clearly “mouse-topia” for the mice is not utopia for the girl – as becomes increasingly clear when the mice refuse to allow her to take baths, throwing the words “It’s just our way” back at the person from whom they learned them. Oh, my – complications. And things do get more and more difficult for the girl, leading eventually to her teacher’s statement that she can no longer bring Baby to school because “each child may have only one friend for naptime,” and the girl already has more than a hundred mice in her hair. Well, something’s got to give, and something does, but there is no big blowup, no anger, no gigantic confrontation here – just a huge-haired, sad-eyed little girl clutching the doll she loves and realizing, belatedly, that things have gone too far. She works everything out with the mice (Parker must have loved creating the two-page picture of the girl talking to dozens upon dozens of them), who leave “singing a mournful song” but not seeming particularly downhearted. And yes, the girl eventually washes and brushes her super-long hair, while the mice move on and – but that would be telling. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair, for ages 4-8, is a delight from start to finish, both to read and to look at – a modern fairy tale that weaves its own magic.
The Dog Loves books by Louise Yates, intended for the same age group, have fairy-tale elements, too, along with a nice touch of the surreal and a gentleness in the appearance and personality of Dog that is immediately winning. Yates has followed up Dog Loves Books and Dog Loves Drawing with Dog Loves Counting, but this is, of course, not just a counting book – not with Dog at its center. It all starts with Dog trying to count sheep so he can sleep, but she sheep fail to cooperate, so Dog considers counting other animals – and, naturally, turns to a book for ideas. “A Big Book of Curious Creatures and Their Habitats” is its title, and indeed the creatures become curiouser and curiouser as Dog Loves Counting progresses. No. 1 is a baby dodo that hatches from a huge, red-spotted egg; Dog includes himself with the dodo chick and says, “Together we are two.” And then Dog and dodo search for other animals whose physical characteristics really do include specific numbers. In other words, instead of just piling creature upon creature as the numbers get larger, Yates brings in some genuine zoology: three-toed sloth, four-legged camel, five-lined skink (a lizard), and so on. Yates is especially clever in getting from five to six: the lizard leaps up and catches a fly, which has a bewildered expression as it finds itself in the skink’s mouth – but instead of eating the insect, the skink flips it on its back to show that it has, yes, six legs. And so Dog and friends move along all the way to the number 10 – and then have a reason to count down, too. It all makes perfect sense in a gently nonsensical way, as Yates delivers yet another winningly written and drawn Dog tale.
The Dog Diaries books are for slightly older readers, ages 7-10, and their mixture of entertainment and education is accordingly balanced differently. Dogs serve an altogether different purpose here, “telling” their own stories in the same way that horses tell theirs in the similar Horse Diaries sequence. The third Dog Diaries book is an especially affecting and involving tale, the story of a very famous Saint Bernard named Barry der Menschenretter (“lifesaver”), who lived in Napoleon’s time and saved more than 40 people from death in the snowy Alps. Barry’s exploits are the stuff of legend, and in fact there are a number of legends about him, making it hard to be sure just what he did – even the exact number of people he rescued is unknown. The Foundation Barry du Grand Saint Bernard, a hospice and breeding foundation in Switzerland, is named for Barry, whose remains were stuffed after his death and can still be seen (although, for reasons explained in the book, the stuffed Barry does not look all that much the way Barry did in life). So the real-world connections of Kate Klimo’s book are many and are very clear. Indeed, Barry’s story is so remarkable that a purely factual telling would make a fine book – but the Dog Diaries are by definition fictionalized, since they are told in the dogs’ own imagined voices. Klimo has Barry (from the word bari, “little bear” in Swiss German) tell his tale in straightforward, modest fashion, emphasizing again and again that he is nothing special and not the hero that humans have made him out to be – just a dog who always loved his work and did it as well as he could. This modesty is a becoming trait, and it melds well with the historical elements of the story – a tale of clerics and their helpers, the marronniers; of robbers in the mountains; of the Napoleonic wars; and of avalanches and blinding snowfalls and the constant threat posed by weather to frail human bodies. Barry’s rescues are movingly told, as are the many losses in his life, including the death of the man he calls “my master, my teacher, my friend, my brother.” Also told movingly is the tale of Barry’s own later life, after he is seriously injured by a boy he is trying to save, who mistakes him for an attacking wolf and stabs him repeatedly with a knife. Barry recovers but ends up going into retirement in the city, where Klimo leaves him rolling happily in snow – the element where he lived and worked for so long. Tim Jessell’s final picture is a suitable one, and his illustrations throughout work quite well, giving Barry expressiveness without anthropomorphizing him. The book concludes, as do the other Dog Diaries books (and the Horse Diaries ones, too), with facts – here not only about the real Barry but also about Saint Bernards in general, including information on what it is like to own one. The longstanding notion of these dogs as carrying barrels around their necks, with life-sustaining drinks for the stranded and injured, is a myth – but the dogs certainly did save many lives in the days long before modern rescue methods existed. Barry’s story is a tribute to the breed as a whole as well as to him, and a well-deserved tribute it is.