Planet of the Dogs. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.
Castle in the Mist: Planet of the Dogs, Volume 2. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.
Snow Valley Heroes: A Christmas Tale—Planet of the Dogs, Volume 3. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.
The first thing to realize about the Planet of the Dogs series is that it is only incidentally about the planet of the dogs. It is mostly about the planet of the humans – an alternative Earth, locked somewhere in what seems to be the Middle Ages, where there are weapons and conflicts but no guns. The second thing to realize is that the age targeting of the series is a little uncertain: the books are recommended for ages 6-12, but many children at the lower end of that range will have trouble reading them on their own (the books are primarily text, although the few illustrations are lovingly done), while many children at the upper end of the age range will find them a little simplistic and (especially in the first volume) a little preachy as well. Of course, since what the books preach is peace, love and loyalty, it is impossible to fault their message; and their mixture of adventure with fairy tale and a few touches of humor is welcome as well.
“Dogs have no worries on their planet because there are no dangers there,” writes Robert J. McCarty in setting up the basic premise of this series. The dogs’ planet is on the opposite side of the sun, and dogs learn through their dreams about what is happening on Earth, the planet of people (but, initially, no dogs at all). The dogs’ planet is a kind of benevolent-monarchy-cum-socialist-utopia: the queen, Miss Merrie, “usually spent little time doing the work of a queen, because there really wasn’t much for her to do. When the road to Shaggy Corners needed repairs, the dogs all worked together and made it happen. When new puppies were born and needed extra care, there were always many volunteers eager to help feed them and give them a bath.” And so on. Nice place – and helpful, too. The dogs bring two children, Daisy and Bean, to the dog planet through dreams, and Miss Merrie explains that “we have become worried [about Earth] because too many people have forgotten about love.” So three dogs named Lucy, Robbie and Buddy come to Earth in body, not just dreams – apparently magically. They bring “our great power of smell, our ability to work together, our loyalty, and our greatest power of all, the power of love.”
This sort of narrative could become a bit treacly if it continued in this vein, but fortunately there are some amusing elements of the story (such as place names on the dogs’ planet: Waggy Valley, Poodletown, Muttville, etc.) and some adventures and conflicts in the dogs’ and children’s futures. In Planet of the Dogs, the adventures initially involve people’s skepticism about the dogs’ existence and powers; then there is a threat to Green Valley from Stone City invaders, and the dogs help head it off. In Castle in the Mist, things turn more to straight fantasy-adventure (this book can actually be read on its own: the background of the dogs is clear from the narrative). Here there is a stereotypical villain: Prince Ukko, who opposes peace and thinks it is “like a disease that could spread,” interfering with his warlike lifestyle and the comfort of his army. The dogs keep a close eye on the prince and his Black Hawk tribe: “The dogs were always watching the castle. With their sense of smell, their keen eyes and ears and their ability to hide in the forest, they could see the Black Hawk soldiers without being seen. …Prince Ukko was now deeply troubled by the very presence of the dogs as well as their howling.” A kidnapping through which Prince Ukko hopes to further his nefarious aims is thwarted with the dogs’ help, and eventually the prince decides he “will not fight the dogs anymore” and leaves the area with a couple of dogs of his own.
The conflict is of a different but related sort in Snow Valley Heroes, which can also be read as a separate book – the husband-and-wife creators of this series have done a good job of keeping the volumes both interrelated and readable as standalones. Their third volume is primarily a seasonal book of the “saving Christmas” variety, with the bad King of the North, whose “eyes were cold and fierce,” threatening the holiday by stealing two of Santa’s reindeer. When that is not enough, he escalates things: “We will bring Santa here to the Ice Castle. With Santa our prisoner, there will be no Christmas.” Of course, the dogs make sure – in their peaceful and loving way – that the king’s plans go awry and that the king pledges, “I will never again do harm to any of you.” And he too ends up bonding with a dog: “The King named him Prince and took him everywhere.” The naïve charm of this and the other books in the series will be a special joy for dog lovers (of course!), but even cat people (and bird people and reptile people and families without pets) will find something to celebrate in stories in which the good guys repeatedly triumph not by being stronger or inherently better than the bad guys but simply by being more peaceful and loving.