June 04, 2015
(++++) SUMMERTIME, SUMMERTIME
Stick Dog Dreams of Ice Cream. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.
The Forget-Me-Not Summer. By Leila Howland. Harper. $16.99.
Stick Dog is a lot of fun in any weather, witness his hot-weather antics in his fourth book, Stick Dog Dreams of Ice Cream. Tom Watson has backed off from emphasizing how bad his Stick Dog art is, but Stick Dog and friends Mutt, Poo-Poo, Karen and Stripes still look the same: not badly drawn, just simply drawn, with rectangular bodies, smaller rectangular heads, trapezoidal ears, squiggly tails, and here and there a spot or patch to show their different coats. The dogs still sound the same, too, with Stick Dog being the brains of this group of strays and the others retaining their now-familiar-to-fans preoccupations, such as Poo-Poo’s anti-squirrel focus. In Watson’s broiling-hot-weather entry, the five dogs discover ice cream when they lick some drips of it from the ground, and they soon become obsessed with it: Stick Dog “had never tasted anything as sweet and delicious as the small puddles left behind from those ice cream drippings. Not only were they delicious, they were also cold and wet – the perfect combination on this mega-hot day.” This leads to a plan to follow the ice-cream truck from which the deliciousness is delivered. It is Stick Dog, of course, who figures out the truck’s start-and-stop pattern, making it possible to anticipate where the truck is going; it is Stick Dog who takes the lead in working out a way to get into the truck; it is Stick Dog who discovers how to extract ice cream from the truck; and it is Stick Dog who is almost discovered by a policeman who approaches the truck while Stick Dog is hiding inside – but, luckily, turns out just to want some ice cream for himself. All the silliness of the earlier Stick Dog adventures is here, and all the special qualities of the dogs as well – for example, “You remember that the dogs can all read, right? Remember how they read ‘Peter’s Frankfurters’ on the side of the cart in the second book? And how they read the address on the pizza box in the third book? And who says dogs can’t read anyway? It’s possible. Maybe they just can’t read out loud to us in human language.” Authorial comments like this help move the story along amusingly while also providing none-too-subtle plugs for the three prior books: Stick Dog, Stick Dog Wants a Hot Dog, and Stick Dog Chases a Pizza. And actually, the self-promotion is just fine, because all four of the books are funny, lighthearted, silly and enjoyable enough so a motto such as “bet you can’t read just one” seems appropriate. Especially for kids who have some extra time for pleasure reading during the summer.
The pleasures are fewer in The Forget-Me-Not Summer, a (+++) novel that hits so many expected notes and so few unexpected ones that even young readers encountering the book for the first time may be forgiven if they wonder whether they have read it before. Leila Howland weaves a thoroughly predictable story of three sisters displaced for the summer – from their Los Angeles home to their aunt’s house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a major summer destination that the book tries to indicate is somehow a lesser spot than L.A. The two older sisters are 12-year-old Marigold, outgoing and boy-fixated, and 11-year-old Zinnia, who considers herself to be always in her older sister’s shadow – even though Marigold herself does not see things that way: “Babysitters always liked Zinnie better. Ever since she was a baby, Zinnie had a way of drawing people toward her. Marigold knew that she wasn’t doing it on purpose, but it didn’t mean that it was any less painful when just as Marigold was about to make a new friend or start a game on the playground, Zinnie would magically appear, beaming like a patch of sunshine on a cloudy day.” So there is some standard sibling rivalry here, which extends as well to the third sister, adorable five-year-old Lily. The overly obviously named Aunt Sunny gets to deal with all this in Massachusetts, but sure enough, the aunt’s special qualities – served up as the kind of studied quirkiness that seems to be endemic to books like this – soon start to win everyone over. The specific events of the summer are, of course, different from those in the many similar books that also target girls in the 8-12 age range: here, the occurrences and self-discoveries revolve around a talent show. But in a way, the specific events of the book are not the point of The Forget-Me-Not Summer. The point is to show the changes in the sisters’ relationships with each other and those around them and, inevitably, the maturing through increasing self-awareness of the two preteens (and even, in small ways, of Lily). The writing is entirely predictable: “Zinnie couldn’t believe her eyes. Marigold had helped her.” And from Aunt Sunny, “Your daughters make a good team.” This is all very heartwarming and sweet and summery, very treacly to those not of a mind to accept the book at the surface level at which it operates, but pleasant enough for anyone seeking light escapism as frothy and evanescent as sea foam.