June 23, 2016
(++++) DOGS AND OTHER TEACHERS
Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog. By Keri Claiborne Boyle. Pictures by Jonathan Sneider. Harper. $17.99.
Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Can I Tell You a Secret? By Anna Kang. Illustrated by Christopher Weyant. Harper. $17.99.
In the real world, people can learn a lot from dogs about living in the moment, about greeting each day with enthusiasm, about accepting reversals mostly without complaint, and of course about responsibility – dogs do require walks, cleanups, medical care and more. In the world of children’s books, the lessons are somewhat different, whether given for the sake of amusement or in seriousness. Keri Claiborne Boyle’s Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog keeps the “teaching” light. Teddy is a rather self-involved, self-important pooch, seen always wearing blacked-out celebrity-style sunglasses, since he is, after all, a celebrity – in his own opinion, anyway. Actually, Teddy’s self-described ways of being helpful may well strike readers as something less than ingratiating: he howls what he calls “sweet lullabies” at night, for instance, and gives “a helping paw” to house painters by dipping his paws in multiple colors and touching newly painted homes. Teddy is oblivious to the damage he causes: at the book’s very start, he leaves behind him a trail of spilled trash, mud from the flower box in which he has been exploring, and evidence that he regularly uses fire hydrants and nearby street areas as a bathroom. But Teddy does none of this out of mischief – he just lacks self-awareness. And that puts him in a strange position when, one day, a cat arrives at Teddy’s home in a box, with a note asking him to take care of her. Teddy does not want to keep the cat, Penelope, but he does not have stamps for return postage or thumbs to use to write a letter of complaint (although he apparently does have a computer: its logo is a bone). Realizing that he is “stuck with this unexpected arrival like a burr in [his] fur,” Teddy puts a leash on Penelope and starts trying to dog-ify her. This goes about as well as could be expected, which is to say not well at all: Penelope will not do the dog-paddle in the backyard kiddie pool and has no interest in hanging her head out of the window in a moving car. For his part, Teddy finds that staring at a mouse hole for long periods of time is not on his agenda. After a while, though, Teddy realizes that he and Penelope do have some things in common, such as a fondness for catnaps and an unwillingness to fetch. And the two eventually evolve a mutual friendship based on the idea that “you just gotta be your own dog – even if it means being a cat.” Not a bad lesson at all.
The lessons are a good deal more lesson-y, so to speak, in Lynne Rae Perkins’ Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. The book has a great start, showing Frank having a really bad day as a boy and Lucky having a really unlucky one as a dog – to the point of being left cowering in the back of a cage at an animal shelter. The two find each other, courtesy of Frank’s parents’ agreement to let Frank adopt a dog, and soon they start learning about each other, as when Lucky thinks, “You like food? I like food!” Soon enough, though, matters get more overtly didactic, and while this approach starts off well, it wears thin after a while. Matters start with Lucky being “very interested in Science,” in which you “observe [something] and ask questions about it and try to understand it.” In Lucky’s case, he helps Frank learn about the sciences of Botany and Entomology when Frank must get the burrs and bugs out of Lucky’s coat. So far, so good. But Perkins lays on the learning more and more thickly, losing sight of the interactivity and entertainment values that make it worthwhile for young readers to deal with Chemistry, Astronomy, Taxonomy, Reading, Math, History, Art and more, all suitably capitalized and defined. “Math is puzzles,” writes Perkins. “Math is how much and how many.” True, Perkins uses Lucky-oriented material to explain this, but things start to seem forced: “The symbol ∞ means ‘infinity,’ which means that whatever is the biggest number you can think of, you can always add one and make an even bigger number. That is the number of biscuits Lucky was willing to eat.” And then Perkins pushes things further with a series of questions that seem like math but really aren’t, such as, “Frank has 2 legs. Each is 23” long. Lucky has 4 legs. Each is 11” long. Who has more fun? There is no answer. We do not have instruments precise enough to measure the difference.” As Frank and Lucky Get Schooled continues, matters get further and further afield, with a History section focused on dog domestication and heroism, an Art section dealing with Composition, Perspective, and the Horizon Line (all capitalized), and then Geography, Foreign Languages and more. The result of all this is a (+++) book that tries very, very hard to be both entertaining and educationally meaningful, but that ends up, like many dogs, biting off more than it can comfortably chew.
The lesson is of a different sort, the teacher is of a different species, and the involvement of readers is very different indeed in Anna Kang’s (++++) Can I Tell You a Secret? Although aimed at the same 4-8 age group as Boyle’s and Perkins’ books, Kang’s has fewer words, larger type and a lot more white space in Christopher Weyant’s art than Jonathan Sneider provides in the pictures for Teddy the Dog or Perkins offers in her elaborate illustrations for Frank and Lucky. In Kang’s book, the focus is on a small frog named Monty, who has a big and highly embarrassing secret: he is afraid of water and cannot swim. This is obviously a very big deal for a frog, and Monty needs help – for which he turns directly to the reader in a clever breaching of the fourth wall (the conceptual space between character and reader). Monty answers a “reader” question about how he has kept the secret, then takes “reader” advice to discuss his problem with his parents, then chickens out and apologizes to the reader for being afraid to talk to his mom and dad – and so on. Eventually, with “reader” help, Monty does explain his fears, and it turns out that his parents understand them and will help him overcome them. Monty, still frightened, wants to “bring my new friend who’s been helping me,” giving his parents a chance to break the fourth wall in their turn and welcome readers to join the frog family. And sure enough, Monty, with plenty of encouragement, is able to get into the water – and quickly finds that he enjoys it. So there is a happy ending here, with an underlying educational message about facing your fears with the help of parents and buddies: at the end, Monty is all smiles as he thanks the reader “for being such a great friend.” The unusual concept is carried through very well here, and children with fears of any sort may well be more able to ask for help with them thanks to Monty the frog and Can I Tell You a Secret?