March 06, 2014
(++++) VIVID IMAGINATION
Dream Dog. By Lou Berger. Illustrated by David Catrow. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Where’s My Homework? By Michael Garland. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Taking Care of Mama Rabbit. By Anita Lobel. Knopf. $11.99.
The places where reality meets fantasy are especially fascinating ones for kids ages 4-8 to explore. Dream Dog takes them there in style. It is the story of a boy named Harry, whose dad works at a pepper factory and is allergic to everything, which means a family dog is out of the question. But Harry really, really wants one. What to do? The answer is the X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet, which Harry uses to conjure up his very own dog, Waffle. This occurs after a misadventure with a color-changing lizard, which Harry’s dad buys to try to satisfy Harry’s desire for a pet. “Harry tried to like the lizard, and he did, a little. He just didn’t love it.” So he gives it to his friend Mathilda, who does love it, and returns to pining for a dog – until the helmet idea occurs to him. This is a fairly straightforward plot, or would be if illustrated in a straightforward way, but David Catrow’s pictures are what make Lou Berger’s pleasant if rather ordinary story come vividly to life. The illustrations are, in a word, weird. But wonderfully weird. The lizard turning green and plaid, the enormous shopping-cart-pushing woman who almost runs it over, the ridiculously exaggerated thought thing that coalesces into Waffle, the sheer joy in Harry’s whole body when the dream dog appears, even the odd decorations hanging on walls and sitting atop tables at home – Catrow brings all these absurdities into the realm of delight, while at the same time beautifully illustrating the strong bond between boy and imaginary dog. The two-page illustration of Harry and Waffle in the bathtub, while Harry’s thoroughly befuddled father looks on, is just priceless, and so is the much smaller picture in which Harry’s dad – after finding a new job at the Ping-Pong-ball warehouse, where his allergies do not act up – shops for a real dog for Harry and gets to choose among some mighty strange creatures, one of which appears to have an eye the size of dad’s entire head. The rest of the book involves the way in which Harry takes the new dog, Bumper, into his life, finding a gentle and thoroughly satisfying way for Waffle to exit joyfully: “Harry was happy that Waffle was happy,” and that is the end, charmingly, of that.
A dog figures as well in Michael Garland’s Where’s My Homework? But this dog, whose name is Frumpy, appears in a story that goes well beyond the standard the-dog-ate-my-homework theme that Garland seems at first to be exploring. The boy narrator knows he did his homework, but he can’t find it anywhere; and after he searches for it on his desk, under his bed and in the bathtub, his speculations about what happened to it get wilder and wilder – with Garland’s illustrations going right along. Maybe aliens took it? Green, big-headed ones emitting red light from their eyes are seen scrutinizing the pages. Pirates, perhaps? One has a page on his hook, another two pages on his sword. Could a boa constrictor have slithered away with it? Could it be with the clowns at the circus? Maybe a wicked witch or dragon or some monkeys had something to do with the mysterious disappearance? As the boy gets more and more worried, as he imagines scenes in which Frumpy is frequently watching the weird things happening, readers will figure out what is going on; and yes, it turns out that Frumpy really did eat the homework. But all is not lost: the boy takes Frumpy to school, where a timely doggy burp brings all the pages right back, apparently legibly enough so the teacher and boy are both pleased with the way things have turned out. Young readers will be pleased, too – and highly amused.
The amusement is gentler and the story sweeter in Anita Lobel’s Taking Care of Mama Rabbit, which is intended for ages 3-7 but will probably be most enjoyable for kids at the low end of that age range. It is simply about a day on which Mama Rabbit stays in bed, not feeling well, while Papa goes out to get medicine for her and the family’s 10 little rabbits search for ways to make Mama feel better. A toy, a cookie, a pretty ribbon, a picture, a book – these and more help perk Mama up, so by the time Papa returns, she does not need the medicine at all, and she and Papa watch the “nicest, sweetest, cleverest little rabbits in the whole world” put on a show. The book is a touch too sweet for any but the youngest children at whom it is targeted, and the story will likely be too thin for many kids who are old enough to read it for themselves. The pictures are pleasantly old-fashioned, reminiscent of classic ones in Little Golden Books, although some of the expressions – such as those of Mama and Papa while watching the little rabbits’ show – seem a bit strained. Taking Care of Mama Rabbit is a (+++) book that will be most enjoyable for adults to read to kids who are not quite ready to read on their own, but who will like seeing ways in which children can make their parents who are a touch “under the weather” feel better.