June 21, 2018


Scout: National Hero. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Harper. $17.99 (hardcover); $12.99 (perfect binding).

Under Dogs. By Andrius Burba. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     In the three-book Hero series and in Max: Best Friend. Hero. Marine., complete with periods within the title, Jennifer Li Shotz celebrates canine courage and canine-kid connections repeatedly, if formulaically. And now she has a new angle on the same topic, with Scout: National Hero as the start of a new sequence about, um, canine courage and canine-kid connections. Really, it is hard to argue about such well-meaning books, whose themes show the interwoven lives of dogs and the people to whom they become attached and whom they are able to help in a variety of perilous situations. But what all Shotz’ books have in common, Scout included, is that the dogs have far more personality than the humans and are always doing more-interesting things than the people are. In Scout, 12-year-old Matt lives with his military family, his mother running a National Guard unit while his father is deployed in a war zone overseas, and of course there is plenty of heart-tugging and wistfulness in the scene of Matt’s 12th birthday party, which his father attends via technology and has to leave abruptly because he has “got a situation.” Also in the human cast is Matt’s 17-year-old sister, Bridget, whose main reason for being is to cramp Matt’s developing style and to need rescuing when a flash flood hits the Nevada town to which the family has recently been transferred. It is the flood that provides the book’s climax by giving both Matt and the dog, Scout, a chance to prove themselves – which Scout needs to do because he is an absolutely first-rate rescue dog when he wants to be, but does not always want to be, so Matt’s mom is going to have send him back where he came from if he cannot become better-trained and more consistently obedient. Readers will know from the start that this is not going to happen, so the only question is how Scout is going to prevent it from happening. The flood is the answer. As for the humans here, Matt’s primary personality trait is impulsiveness that verges on self-destructiveness, because, see, he keeps trying to prove himself to the kids in all the new towns where his family has to move, and his definition of proving himself involves doing dangerous and stupid things so – well, so what? That is never very clear and is not the point of the book, anyway. What matters is the budding relationship between Scout and Matt – who, predictably, is the only person who realizes Scout’s quality and understands that this dog is, if anything, too intelligent to obey all commands blindly. The book’s subtitle will presumably be shown to be meaningful later in the series, because Scout’s heroism here – in rescuing Bridget after first figuring out (intelligence, remember?) how to free a baby trapped in a partly submerged car and unable to release the harness holding her car seat in place – is strictly on the local level. But there is surely more to come. And it seems, miraculously and without explanation, that Matt and his family will actually be able to stay in Nevada, even though staying in one place has never been possible before. And this will give Matt a chance to develop friendships with the preteens he meets and interacts with in this first series book, especially Dev and Amaiya. They should all get along very well: none of them has a differentiated personality. Nor do they need one: this is a book about a dog star. And that is a Sirius…err, serious matter.

     Decidedly unserious are the pictures in photographer Andrius Burba’s Under Dogs, which are exceptionally amusing and are flawed only because when you have seen them once, there is little reason to go back to the book and see them again: this is an almost perfect example of a gift book that a gift-giver need not feel guilty about thumbing through before handing it to the intended recipient. That recipient needs to be a dog lover with a somewhat skewed sense of humor – certainly Burba’s appears to be a little off-kilter. The book contains nothing but photos of dogs taken from below – presumably the pups are standing or lying on a piece of glass or plastic that, hopefully, is comfortable enough so their expressions are indicative of relaxation rather than panic. It is a little hard to be sure in some of the photos, but the view-from-underneath concept is amusing and apparently harmless enough to give Burba the benefit of the doubt. Aside from the photos, there is nothing in the book except a statement of the breed of each dog photographed. Some of these pictures are genuinely funny: there is a German spitz that is nothing but four paws completely surrounded by puffy white fur, and a Yorkshire terrier whose paws are barely visible at all because of its extensive coat (and where exactly is its head?). On the other hand, the Thai ridgeback, with rear legs splayed and muzzle pointed straight down toward the camera, looks distinctly uncomfortable, as do the Basenji and golden retriever, both of which seems to be trying to keep their balance (what exactly are they on top of?). There is a shih tzu here that looks like an alien teddy bear (is that a single eye up top?), and a dachshund that seems to have not only an exceptionally long body but also a highly extended turtle-style neck. Some breeds are shown more than once: Burba seems to favor Chihuahuas and Yorkies. And yes, a couple of mutts are included. The point of the book is to be quite pointless: there is no lesson here, no grand theme, and, really, no significance at all. That is why the book, as much fun as it is to look through once, has little staying power: it is ultimately not about much of anything. It is certainly enjoyable in its own way, though. And a gift-giver can even suggest that the gift recipient handle it very gently and re-gift it, so its small delights can be passed along again and again.

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