November 03, 2016


The Poet’s Dog. By Patricia MacLachlan. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $14.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud Christmas Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $5.99.

     For most families that consider a once-a-year holiday-themed trip to a classical-music venue, the usual choice is Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, which is set at Christmas and packed with wonderful music and a slight, upbeat story with only a modicum of danger in a fantasy setting. Much, much less well-known is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, which is known as “Winter Dreams” because the composer called its first movement “Dreams of a Winter Journey.” But it is the feeling of that symphony, a darker and more moody work than The Nutcracker even though the symphony has an eventual triumphant ending, that best fits Patricia MacLachlan’s The Poet’s Dog. This is very much a wintertime fantasy, and it is a sad story – despite the uplift of the conclusion – that may well be too intense for the age range of 6-10 for which it is ostensibly intended. The whole story is about a wintertime journey, and the dreamlike elements here are many. To start with, the journey is interrupted by a car accident, after which kids named Nickel (who is almost 12) and Flora (who is eight) are left in the car while their mom goes to a nearby house to get help. But their mom is gone a long time, and it starts to snow, and soon there is a blizzard, and the kids get scared and leave the car – putting a note on the front seat so their mom will know they are safe. This setup is not particularly believable, and it does not particularly matter, because this is a rescue tale with a difference. The kids are rescued by a dog, an Irish wolfhound named Teddy – and he can talk. However, he is able to be understood only by children and poets – he was himself a rescue once, adopted by a poet, and the poet read so much to him that, as Teddy (who narrates the book) explains, “I saw how words follow one another and felt the comfort of them.” This is a very short book, at 88 pages barely a novella, but it is as packed with the warmth of love inside as with the chill of winter outside. Bit  by bit, Nickel and Flora learn why Teddy is no longer living with the poet, Sylvan – adults will know the name means “woods,” and of course the house where Teddy takes the kids is deep in the woods and is cut off from the outside world: “‘No phone,’ I said. ‘Sylvan didn’t like phones.’” The morose but gentle story – it soon becomes clear that Sylvan has died – is all about the budding relationship between Teddy and the children. After a while, Sylvan’s friend Ellie helps get the kids back together with their father, who has been searching for them. And he, it turns out, was Sylvan’s student – Sylvan had sent him a poem in which he celebrated his, the poet’s, dog. So the love and lessons of Sylvan are passed on, and of course Teddy is adopted into a new family that will love him devotedly – and any adult reading the book to a child in the target age range who does not tear up at the heartwarming conclusion is thoroughly lacking in holiday spirit. The Poet’s Dog is a poetically written fantasy, a dream of a winter journey at the end of which there is a wonderful, if bittersweet, destination.

     As light, silly and frothy as The Poet’s Dog is sensitive and heartfelt, Rob Elliott’s Laugh-Out-Loud Christmas Jokes for Kids is the author’s latest (+++) seasonal collection of mildly amusing bits of silliness. There is nothing profound here – just funny little entries designed to elicit a smile or two, and perhaps an occasional outright laugh. There is the knock-knock joke in which “who’s there” is Les, as in “Les go caroling and get some hot chocolate.” There is the question about what the basil said to the oregano: “Seasoning’s greetings.” There is the elf who had to stay after school because he forgot his gnome-work, and the cat that took a long time to wrap Christmas presents because he wanted them to be purr-fect. There is an answer to the question of what you call a snowman who vacations in Florida: “A puddle.” And to the query about where crocodiles keep their eggnog: “In the refriger-gator.” And there are appropriate Christmas presents: for a baboon, “a monkey wrench,” for a wasp, “a bee-bee gun,” for a hyena, “a Snickers bar,” and for a rabbit, “a hare-brush.” Some of the jokes here are wintry rather than Christmas-focused: “Why did the mittens get married? It was glove at first sight.” But all the material has at least a slight holiday-ish focus, and all of it is mildly amusing enough to be shared with kids of all ages – and with adults who are willing to laugh politely rather than groan. Well-intentioned but scarcely of any real significance, Laugh-Out-Loud Christmas Jokes for Kids is best thought of as a stocking stuffer: it is small enough to fit into a Christmas stocking, thin enough to be looked through even in the midst of holiday merriment, and just funny enough to keep the mood warm and light despite any chill outdoors.

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