October 19, 2017


Stick Dog 6: Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

Stick Dog 7: Stick Dog Craves Candy. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

     It’s all about the goodies. Book after book, Tom Watson’s Stick Dog and his four canine companions find themselves in search of something, pretty much anything, to eat; and book after book, they eventually get fed – but only after misadventures in which Stick Dog, the only clear-thinking one of the pack, has to put up with the hilarious misunderstandings and misinterpretations and ridiculously overwrought plans of his friends and fellow scroungers. The Stick Dog books are intended for ages 8-12 and are written and drawn as if by someone in that same age range – hence the title character’s distinctly primitive rectangular-body-with-sticks-for-legs appearance, which is then echoed in the look of his four companions. Watson neatly walks the fine line between writing like a preteen (he does) and talking down to preteens (he doesn’t). The basic plot changes little from book to book, but the way it is worked out varies just enough to make each series entry fun even for readers who can figure out pretty much everything that is coming.

     Stick Dog’s four companions are Stripes (who is polka-dotted), Poo-Poo (so called for being a poodle), Karen (a diminutive dachshund who is sensitive about her size), and Mutt (who is indeed a mutt, and has a propensity for collecting all sorts of oddments in his coat, some of which turn out to be useful during the pack’s adventures). The stories start and end at the drainage pipe that Stick Dog calls home, beginning with everyone being hungry and ending with everyone fed. That same story arc works again and again because the specific foods (referenced in the titles) are different and the methods of getting them are very different. Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti has the dogs mistaking some leftover spaghetti in a takeout box for little pieces of rope, then discovering that these particular “ropes” are quite delicious, then figuring out where they came from (thanks to Stick Dog’s ability to read), and then getting to that restaurant by climbing a hill. That is, Stick Dog tricks the other dogs into climbing the hill, which they believe is too steep for them. He does this by moving them upwards bit by bit while listening to their plans for ascent. Stripes suggests Stick Dog climb up the hill, then climb down it to help Mutt, then they both climb it, then they both come down to help Poo-Poo, and so forth. Poo-Poo wants to find a gigantic piece of rope and lasso an airplane as it flies overhead. Mutt plans to capture a hot-air balloon and ride it up the hill. And Karen, the most dimwitted of the bunch and the least aware of it, hatches an elaborate plan to build a huge bonfire, set a gigantic skillet on it, and have the dogs sit in the skillet until they are burned so badly that they spontaneously leap to the top of the hill, where five buckets of water will be waiting for them to cool their behinds. The absurdities mount throughout the book, as in all these volumes, but eventually the dogs do find the spaghetti restaurant atop the hill, Stick Dog figures out how to get inside (while the other dogs are busy playing hide and seek in the form of everyone hiding and no one seeking), and a good time and good deal of spaghetti are eventually had by all. And at the end there are meatballs, which Stick Dog finds after his friends get away from the restaurant and accidentally leave him locked inside. Stick Dog never holds grudges and remains generous to the end: he gives each of his friends three meatballs and keeps two for himself. The Stick Dog books, as silly as they are, again and again reinforce this idea of friendship and of taking friends at face value and nonjudgmentally.

     The seventh Stick Dog book is a Halloween story, which starts when the dogs are looking for food in people’s houses (without, of course, being seen) and Stripes encounters witches – or what he thinks are witches. All the dogs panic, even Stick Dog, until Stick Dog figures out that these are just ordinary humans in costumes, and they are walking around getting candy from houses – candy that turns out to be delicious when the dogs sample some that has fallen into the street. Poo-Poo, the ingredients expert among the dogs, explains that “this so-called ‘candy’ is an invigorating blend of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and fruity flavoring,” which is a pretty darned good analysis. Unfortunately, the taste of cherry reminds Poo-Poo of his puppy days on a farm where there were cherry trees, and the trees were full of squirrels that could get cherries anytime while Poo-Poo could only get them when they fell, and soon Poo-Poo has reverted to the crazed squirrel hater of earlier books until Stick Dog talks him down from post-traumatic squirrel stress. Then the dogs have to come up with plans for getting candy – this time Karen recommends building a house, because houses contain candy and if they build one there will be candy inside. But things do not go quite that way; they go better. Stick Dog watches two kids dressed as witches get caramel apples from sweet old Grandma Smith, who cannot hear or see much anymore, and eventually he and the other dogs ring Grandma Smith’s bell, and she thinks they are kids in dog costumes, and she mistakes their various barks for the imperfectly heard names of children, and the whole scene is absolutely hilarious. There is a complication, of course – there always is – when the gate into Grandma Smith’s yard swings shut and the dogs, of course, cannot open it and are stuck inside. Stick Dog solves the problem by standing on flowerpots and using an old, torn tennis ball helpfully supplied by Mutt. The other dogs think Stick Dog has lost it – they always think that when he has his best ideas – but they reluctantly go along with him and, sure enough, he saves them, saves the day, saves the candy, and so on. In each of these books, Stick Dog is the hero, but in each of them, he is distinctly modest about it, never seeks the limelight, puts up with a remarkable degree of ridiculousness from his friends, and generally behaves like a much nicer version of a helpful, friendly, clever human being. This is why there are Stick Dog books but not Stick Kid books. Watson knows where reality ends and supreme silliness begins.

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