September 10, 2015


A Dog Wearing Shoes. By Sangmi Ko. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

     An unusually affecting picture-book debut that takes a true story, twists it just enough to make it feel like a neatly plotted beginning-middle-and-end tale, and presents it with unusually effective black-and-white illustrations enlivened by little dabs of color, A Dog Wearing Shoes stirs emotions far beyond what would be expected from its modest plot. All that happens is that a little girl finds a lost dog, takes it home, realizes it must belong to someone, finds the original owner, gives the dog up, and then gets a pup of her own. But the way Sangmi Ko tells this story – which is based on a dog-finding experience that her niece actually had – makes it very special indeed.

     At the very beginning, the tale opens with an obviously bored little girl named Mini riding in a car driven by her mom in heavy traffic. Suddenly the car screeches to a halt – Mini’s and her mom’s mouths wide open and Mini ending up with her eyes spinning (shown as spirals in Ko’s very clever drawing). A dog is sitting right in front of the car – and it is wearing bright yellow shoes (the only color in the illustration, and a wonderful touch). The dog, small in size but huge-eyed and with extremely frizzy ears and tail, is as cartoony as can be, but there is something instantly endearing and realistic about its obvious enthusiasm. The next scene, showing the dog running toward Mini’s mom as traffic roars all around and drivers look on with smiles, befuddlement, irritation or varying degrees of inattention, propels the story perfectly ahead toward a quick happy ending, with the dog coming home to live with Mini.

     But so simple an outcome is not to be – and that is what makes A Dog Wearing Shoes so special. Yes, Mini and the dog bond and play, but after a while, Mini wants to do things that the dog does not want to do; and the dog looks bewildered and lost in a rather cluttered room in which furniture, wall hangings, plants and an old-fashioned sewing machine are lovingly rendered in a highly attractive artistic style that makes the small pup seem even smaller and his yellow shoes stand out from his black-and-white surroundings even more. Mini, increasingly desperate to keep the dog after he starts barking because he apparently misses his family (Mini’s mom’s suggestion, which Mini refuses to acknowledge), takes the pup to the park, where everyone admires him, he gets along wonderfully with other dogs, and he quickly shows how smart he is by doing a variety of tricks.

     However, Mini’s pride gets the better of her (an illustration of her with enormous eyes and super-broad smile is laugh-out-loud funny). She lets the dog off-leash (the red leash being the only colored item here that is not yellow) to fetch a stick – at which point the dog runs away. Heartbroken, Mini, helped by her mom, searches for the dog, but they find only one yellow shoe. The next day, Mini and her mom go to the local animal shelter, where they are lucky enough to find the dog – who must, Mini now understands, belong to someone who surely misses him. So Mini puts up bright yellow “found” posters around the neighborhood, and the owner, a little boy in a bright yellow shirt, does indeed show up, so happy to be reunited with his pup that he cries tears of joy in a wordless scene that neatly sums up the very special bond between people and their animal companions. Mini and her mom cannot help but be happy to have brought boy and dog together – but now what will they do? The answer, of course, is that they will return to the animal shelter and find a dog just for Mini. And that is exactly what they do – in another wordless scene, in which a caged pup with an ear-to-ear smile bonds so immediately with Mini that the shelter workers and Mini’s mom end up with ear-to-ear grins of their own.

     What a lovely book this is, filled with empathy and compassion and the never-quite-realized potential for heartbreak – and, at the very end, offering information and cautions about dog adoption and suggesting Web sites to visit to find out more. What Ko has done so well here is to take a singular occurrence that really took place and turn it into a story with resonance and meaning beyond the real-world incident that prompted the tale. Parents who read A Dog Wearing Shoes with their kids should be prepared for highly insistent requests for a puppy from the animal shelter – and kids should be prepared for their parents to discuss the responsibilities and potential difficulties of dog ownership, which come through almost as clearly here as do the joys.

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