May 25, 2017
(++++) DOGS WITH A DIFFERENCE
Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson. Harper. $17.99.
Enzo and the Fourth of July Races. By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
The Great Fuzz Frenzy. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Dogs can be great characters in children’s books, but not all dogs are created equal. Some can be recognizably canine, while others can be very strange indeed. And few are stranger than Ged Adamson’s Shark Dog! He is – well, just what it sounds like. He has a dog’s body with a fin on top and an enormous and very toothy shark’s head in front. He is also absolutely adorable, as the girl who narrates the book quickly finds out when she and her dad – “a famous explorer who travels the world” – discover Shark Dog during one of their adventures. Actually, Shark Dog discovers them, leaping onto their boat during the night and giving the girl a great big “slurp!” He happily goes home with them and appears to adjust to life on land pretty well, although he does have a few peculiarities: for instance, when it comes to fetching a stick in the park, he bites through the trunk of a tree and brings back the whole thing. Some of Adamson’s funniest illustrations show Shark Dog acting like a shark while doing dog things (his fin is seen emerging from tall grass as he stalks a cat) and acting like a dog while doing shark things (he brings the girl’s dad his slippers under water). The picture of Shark Dog curled up on top of the girl’s bed, sleeping happily at her feet, is a gem. But at the beach one day, Shark Dog thinks he sees another of his kind – which turns out to be only a blow-up toy. And now Shark Dog is sad, so sad that the girl and her father decide to take him back to his home – not by boat this time, but by airplane, with Shark Dog in his own window seat and the dad reading “National Sharkographic.” Upon arrival at Shark Dog’s home, the girl and her dad have a wonderful time with Shark Dog and the other shark dogs, which give the two humans a serenade around a campfire. But then, sadly, it is time to go, and the girl says a tearful good-bye, and she and her dad head out to a boat to go home via water – when, suddenly, Shark Dog swims to and leaps onto the boat, as he had done at the start of the story! He has made his decision to stay with the girl, and everything ends happily – and adults get an opportunity to explain how responsible it was of the girl to offer to let Shark Dog go, so he could make up his own mind. This may make it easier to handle things when kids come home, if not with a shark dog, then with something else that they find in the great outdoors. Or something else that finds them.
The irrepressible Enzo is a much more ordinary dog, but there is something very special about him, too, in the series by Garth Stein featuring wonderfully upbeat R.W. Alley illustrations. The Enzo books tend to pose more real-world problems than many books for young readers do, and tend to solve them in realistic and appropriate ways –with Enzo an observer of and commenter on whatever Zoë and her dad, Denny, are up to. Enzo and the Fourth of July Races displays this approach perfectly. Independence Day is a race-car day for Denny, and this year, "Zoë is big enough to race on her own in the Kids’ Kart Challenge!” So she signs up – but becomes downhearted when she hears a braggart boy telling his friends that “girls aren’t fast drivers.” Zoë is already worried that she may not be fast enough, and when she hears this, she takes her name off the list altogether, much to the annoyance of Enzo: “I growl softly at the kid, but he doesn’t hear me because he’s the kind of person who can only hear his own words.” Zoë’s decision upsets her dad so much that he is off his game in the pre-race practice session. Kids learn race terminology here when Denny worries about the “setup” and describes his car as “loose” (these and other terms are in an end-of-book glossary). Denny’s crew chief, Johnny Mac, realizes that it is worry about Zoë, not anything mechanical, that is causing problems for Denny, and he tells Zoë the names of some top-notch female racers “who could teach that kid a thing or two about speed!” With more practice and renewed confidence, Zoë again decides to enter the kids’ race. Eventually, with Enzo helping and encouraging both Denny and Zoë by running “back and forth to make sure they’re both driving well” – and exhausting himself in the process – both Zoë and Denny emerge winners, the braggart boy apologizes, and Zoë practices good sportsmanship (sportsgirlship?) by showing him how she was able to beat him by changing her driving technique on a crucial part of the track. The book ends with Enzo watching “the fireworks at the end of race night with Denny and Zoë, who are my favorite people of all” – another heartwarming Enzo story that also packs in quite a bit of information on how auto racing works and on being a good sport in any sort of competition.
There is a dog in The Great Fuzz Frenzy, too. Her name is Violet, and without her there would be no story at all. But this amusing tale by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel is actually about dogs of a different sort: prairie dogs. Violet gets things going by dropping a tennis ball into a prairie-dog colony, where it goes down, down, down – kids have to turn the book sideways and open a full-page flap to see just how far belowground the ball goes, as prairie dogs scatter every which way with cries of “help!” and “run for your life!” After the ball eventually comes to rest, though, the prairie dogs become curious about it, trying to figure out what it is. The largest of them, Big Bark, loudly tells everyone to stand back while he takes a look, but it is the very small Pip Squeak who gets to the ball first, pokes it, and ends up with a bit of yellow fuzz caught in her claw. And this leads to – well, the title of the book is The Great Fuzz Frenzy, and that is just what ensues, as prairie dogs use bits of fuzz to dress themselves up in all sorts of hilarious ways: with fuzz ears, fuzz belts, fuzz slippers, fuzz ribbons, fuzz masks and lots more. Soon the news of the fuzz spreads, and more and more prairie dogs come to get some – until, inevitably, it runs out; and, also inevitably, the prairie dogs get into disputes about it: “It was a fuzz fight. A fuzz feud. A fuzz fiasco.” Poor Pip Squeak cannot figure out how to stop all the arguing, and eventually everyone is so worn out by running and fighting that the whole colony goes to sleep – only to find, on awakening, that Big Bark has taken all the fuzz and clothed himself completely in it. The end? Not even close: this is a very elaborate story indeed. Big Bark’s bright yellow color and loud voice attract a real-world prairie-dog enemy, an eagle, which grabs Big Bark and flies off to make a meal of him – resulting in a carefully staged prairie-dog rescue operation that requires Big Bark to shed all the fuzz. The eagle ends up wearing it – as a very amusing-looking wig – and swoops back toward the prairie dogs. But the rescued Big Bark, using his size and voice, warns everyone to get to safety underground. So all the prairie dogs escape, and everything is calm again, with no more fuzz around to cause problems. Except that – well, at the very, very end of the book, back comes Violet, this time carrying a red tennis ball, and kids will know exactly where things are going. Again! The Great Fuzz Frenzy, originally published in 2005, is now available in a new paperback edition, and is every bit as much fun as it was in hardcover form. It is, in fact, doggone delightful.