November 06, 2014


Tiptop Cat. By C. Roger Mader. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India. By Gerald McDermott. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Work, Dogs, Work: A Highway Tail. By James Horvath. Harper. $15.99.

Daisy to the Rescue: True Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes. By Jeff Campbell. Illustrations by Ramsey Beyer. Zest Books. $17.99.

     Animals take chances for all sorts of reasons – and they take them especially dramatically in books such as Tiptop Cat. This is the simple story of a cat living in Paris and loving it – especially loving rooftop climbing that eventually brings him to the tiptop of a chimney, where he sees the city spread out beneath and all around him, the Eiffel Tower prominent amid the buildings and streets. All is idyllic until an intruder appears in the form of a pigeon – and of course the cat gives chase, leaps and pounces, but…uh oh…misses. And so he plunges down, down, down, past bemused residents of several apartments, the cat showing very human-like expressions of worry and concern, eventually falling right through an awning and ending up looking cross-eyed in the arms of a shopkeeper. No harm done: a visit to the vet shows no broken bones or serious damage. But the cat’s spirit, if not his body, has been hurt, and now he avoids the rooftops, hiding indoors in the laundry basket, under a blanket, behind curtains, beneath a rug. Quel dommage! But this is not the end! For soon another bird shows up – a crow, this time – and the cat’s instincts lead him once again to give chase, this time from the apartment window, up and up and up, until finally the cat is once more “on top of the world,” gazing out over Paris, and hopefully having learned his lesson about leaping too far and too fast (the crow perches on the chimney behind him, safely out of sight). C. Roger Mader’s well-paced story and elegant, near-photographic illustrations produce a picture book that is indeed mostly about the pictures, which offer a series of entertaining perspectives on the cat, the birds, the people in the arrondissement, and the city of Paris as a whole.

     Gerald McDermott takes young readers on a journey to Asia in Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India, originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback. Again, the illustrations are a big part of the book’s charm, but these are ones befitting a fairy tale: created with textured paper and hand-colored with fabric paint and ink. They give just the right “once upon a time” feeling to the story of wily Monkey and hungry Crocodile – a fairly typical trickster tale, in which Monkey wants to eat the mangoes that grow on a mid-river island, but cannot get there; while Crocodile wants Monkey to try to cross the river so Crocodile can eat Monkey’s heart. Crocodile offers Monkey a ride to the island, and Monkey has to think quickly when Crocodile sinks lower and lower in the water and announces that he is going to eat Monkey’s heart. Escaping from that particular trap, Monkey looks for another way to the island, finding it in the form of some rocks in the river on which he can jump. So Crocodile decides that he will disguise himself as one of the rocks, and grab Monkey when Monkey jumps onto him – and, again, quick-thinking Monkey has to find a way out of this fix. He does so, telling Crocodile from the safety of the shore that “your teeth may be sharp…but your mind is dull!” Monkey is one of many trickster characters from around the world, from Br’er Rabbit to Anansi the spider, and his escapades here fit right in with those of other physically-weak-but-wily heroes and sort-of-heroes (tricksters are not wholly positive role models – witness, for example, Loki in Norse mythology). Young readers will enjoy Monkey’s antics at Crocodile’s expense, but hopefully remember that Crocodile is still in the river, just waiting for Monkey to make one tiny mistake.

     Mistakes are not acceptable among the construction-crew dogs who appeared first in Dig, Dogs, Dig and then in Build, Dogs, Build. Now Duke and the crew (Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot, Spike, and Jinx the cat mascot) are back in Work, Dogs, Work: A Highway Tail. And this time they are building, as the title indicates, a highway. Assembling their heavy equipment – bulldozer, grader, steamroller, loader and paving truck – the dogs start their busy day, bulldozing and smoothing, flattening and leveling the ground. Dump trucks pick up their loads from “huge quarry trucks [that] are too big for the street.” Bit by bit, the road work progresses, until the dogs are stopped by “mile after mile of axle-deep muck.” No worries, though: “With hills on both sides,/ Duke knows what to do./ ‘Get digging, dogs!/ We must tunnel through!’” They blast a tunnel, proceed to a river, realize they “need a tall bridge/ at least four lanes wide,” and promptly work with a barge crane to erect one. “Building this bridge was/ quite unexpected./ It’s a very big job keeping/ places connected.” Eventually the road is finished – yes, in one day, which is no more realistic (and no less) than what happens in James Horvath’s previous dog-construction-crew books. The road runs from the city, through the hills, “all the way to the beach,” where the dogs get to take some well-earned time off before starting their next job. The nearly zany pace of the construction contrasts with the realistic depictions of equipment and accurate (if very brief) descriptions of what needs to be done to accomplish each part of the road-building task. The ever-diligent, ever-happy crew – with Jinx popping up here and there throughout the project – always has a good time at work. And Horvath always has a few visual surprises in store, such as the happy shark tapping Spot on the shoulder as Spot, wearing a make-believe shark fin, watches Spike run away and thinks he is the one who scared his pal. The rollicking rhymes and amusing pictures combine to make this book, like its predecessors, wholly unrealistic as to the speed of construction – but wholly enjoyable for imagining what it would be like if work could be done at this pace.

     Fictional animals may be particularly hard-working and dynamic, but real-life ones can at times even surpass their make-believe counterparts in terms of bravery. Daisy to the Rescue is a four-part compendium of stories of animals, domestic and wild, that have saved human lives – perhaps intentionally, perhaps instinctively, perhaps coincidentally, but saved them they have. The fourth section, “Legends and Folktales,” is fascinating but largely dismissible by those of a scientific bent, and Jeff Campbell knows this, which is why he labels this part of the book as he does. It is nevertheless fascinating, and not wholly unverifiable: although the ancient Greek tale of Arion being rescued by a dolphin is certainly not provable and has many mythic features, the story of Sergeant Stubby, a dog in World War I that participated in 17 battles, is certainly true – even if some of its details may have been exaggerated. The meat of the book, though, is in its first three sections. The first focuses on domestic animals living with humans – companions that it seems logical would be especially aware of and responsive to human beings’ needs. Dogs figure largely here, of course, but so do a pot-bellied pig that managed to bring home a passing motorist after his owner had a heart attack, a rabbit whose strange behavior alerted a woman that her husband was in a diabetic coma, and a Quaker parrot that alerted a babysitter that a little girl was choking by uttering the phrase baby “Mama baby” for what the babysitter said was the first time ever – and with apparent understanding of its meaning. Did the parrot understand? Do any animals know what they are doing when they save human lives? Do they act with intention, or instinct, or do we humans look back at events afterwards and only think the animals protected us? To his credit, Campbell asks these questions repeatedly, while generally letting the anecdotes in the book speak for themselves. The second section of Daisy to the Rescue is the least interesting, because it focuses on animals that are specifically trained to help people – although even here, some stories show the animals going well beyond what they seem to have been trained to do. The third section, on wild animals that have saved humans, is in some ways the most intriguing, since there seems to be little evolutionary reason for undomesticated animals to help human beings. Yet the stories are evocative of the tempting notion that perhaps there is a sort of free-floating interspecies empathy that occasionally manifests itself in animal aid to humans, just as some humans will go out of their way to help animals with which they have no special relationship – ducks or turtles crossing a busy road, for example. The first three stories in this section involve two gorillas and a band of vervet monkeys, but before readers can start thinking that perhaps empathetic assistance exists only between humans and our distant simian cousins, Campbell tells about gray seals that kept a woman afloat in freezing water long enough for a rescue boat to reach her; a tame but not fully domesticated elephant that sensed an incoming tsunami and ran from the shore with an eight-year-old girl on his back, standing still and bracing himself when the wave outran him and slammed into him; Ethiopian lions that scared away men who were abducting a 12-year-old girl and stood guard over her until police arrived half a day later, at which point they backed slowly away and left the girl with the rescuers; and more. The accuracy of some of the book’s stories seems greater than that of others, and some of the accounts are simply harder to believe – occasionally, someone observed to have been rescued by an animal does not believe it ever happened, even though witnesses say it did. So it is fine to read Daisy to the Rescue simply as entertainment and to be skeptical of much of what Campbell reports. But it is unlikely that all the stories here are completely unfounded, and anyone who lives with companion animals or interacts with wild ones is well aware that nonhuman creatures have far greater depths to them than humans always give them credit for. Not all animals are heroic, certainly, but some, it seems, are – and there is something reassuring about the notion that maybe we humans are not the only creatures that care, in times of distress, about what happens to us.

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