Dog Man #5: Lord of the Fleas. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Soldier Dogs #1: Air Raid Search and Rescue. By Marcus Sutter. Illustrations by Pat Kinsella. HarperFestival. $12.99.
Dav Pilkey’s clever reworking of classic novels into the peculiar and silly Dog Man universe – “created” by fifth-graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins, Pilkey’s authorial alter egos for the series – goes especially well in Lord of the Fleas, which takes off very loosely (very!!) from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The fifth Dog Man book uses all the now-established characters, but in some new ways. Aside from Dog Man (the character with a human cop’s body and a K-9 cop’s head), the characters include the Chief, reporter Sarah Hatoff and her dog Zuzu, evil mastermind Petey the cat, and Petey’s clone Li’l Petey. Also starring this time are Li’l Petey’s robot, 80-HD, introduced in the previous book, and several new villainous and ridiculous characters who are so bad and awful and rotten and megalomaniacal and silly that they provide an opportunity for Petey to have a change of heart and soul and actually become a good guy. Or try to. The book features Li’l Petey arranging for Dog Man to dress as superhero The Bark Knight, the kitten himself to be Wolverine-clawed Cat Kid, and 80-HD to don a cape and become Lightning Dude. In those guises, aided (sometimes) and abetted (occasionally) by Petey and his giant robot, the good guys deal with the bad-guy trio of Piggy (the mastermind, or masterpig), Crunky the ape, and Bub the crocodile. Pilkey has a lot of fun playing games with the plot, the characters and his readers, with one chapter called “Something Dumb Happens!” and another titled “A Buncha Stuff That Happened Next” (and yes, he has used that chapter title in earlier Dog Man books). Some of Pilkey’s writing seems designed to appeal to adults as much as to kids: “You can’t do the same things – again and again – and expect to get a laugh! Ya gotta avoid repetition – shun redundancy – eschew reiteration – resist recapitulation – and also, stop telling the same joke over and over!” The context of this sort of thing matters, though, since that “same joke” to which Petey (speaker of all those lines) refers is a knock-knock joke whose punchline is invariably about someone or something pooping: it turns out that Li’l Petey, for all his fine qualities, is poop-obsessed. As for the plot of Lord of the Fleas, it is the usual Dog Man mixture of chases and narrow escapes, disasters that happen and un-happen, giant robots that are created and destroyed and that fight each other when not fighting the various characters, all while the non-robotic characters are explaining, as Piggy does, that “we’re the bad guys…because we have difficulty controlling our emotions.” The Dog Man series has sometimes overreached in its sort-of adaptation of classic novels – the use of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in the previous Dog Man book was a bit too much of a stretch – but Pilkey definitely gets it right in Lord of the Fleas, and fans of the series will be even more delighted than usual at the twists, turns and absurdities that pile atop one another incessantly throughout the latest entry.
The dog-focused adventure is far more serious and is set in the real world in the Soldier Dogs series, which is based (loosely, but not as loosely as Pilkey’s books are on their sources) on the use of military dogs during World War II. Air Raid Search and Rescue, the (+++) opening book in the series, has a not-surprising mixture of wartime adventure and family conflict, with everything resolved and neatly tied up by the end. In Marcus Sutter’s story, protagonist Matt’s older brother has enlisted in the Army and left Matt his dog, a retired fire dog named Chief. Matt is delighted, but becomes considerably less so when Chief, a German shepherd, starts paying more attention to Matt’s foster sister, Rachel, than to Matt himself. That is the family-drama element here – a mild and rather contrived one, to be sure. Most of the interesting material in Air Raid Search and Rescue comes in the battle scenes. The book is set in 1942 in Canterbury, England, a city repeatedly bombed by the Nazis during World War II, and this means Sutter has plenty of chances to show Matt and Rachel fleeing from explosions and figuring out that they are important to each other even if they do not always get along perfectly. The whole family-issues matter eventually climaxes with worry about Matt’s brother, Eric, and Matt’s realization that “I know why my parents let Eric enlist. There are things you can’t ignore. Battles you can’t run from. Sometimes you have to fight. Sometimes you have to give everything you’ve got.” Since Eric turns out to be okay, the lesson is learned without too much emotional pain – and the relationship with Chief, who also gives all he has and is thus declared by Matt to be “a soldier dog,” is made very clear indeed. The heroism of the dogs involved in the war effort was real, and the simplification of the story here is perhaps inevitable in a book for young readers. Pat Kinsella’s illustrations make scary scenes look suitably troubling and make Chief look suitably heroic, especially in a full-color foldout poster bound into the middle of the book. Air Raid Search and Rescue ends with some facts that are at least as interesting as the cardboard characters in the narrative: the main jobs dogs did during World War II (sentry, patrol, search-and-rescue, messenger, mine detection); the seven breeds considered the best soldier dogs (German shepherd, Belgian sheepdog, Doberman pinscher, collie, Siberian husky, malamute, Eskimo dog); the total number of dogs used in the war effort (10,000); the number of buildings destroyed during the Canterbury Blitz (800, plus 6,000 damaged); the huge number of raids made against the city (135); and more. Air Raid Search and Rescue is a mildly exciting adventure drawing on actual history, and a book that may get young readers interested in learning more about the realities of World War II – perhaps even those involving people, as well as dogs.