Dogs and picture books might be the most ideal pairing of subject and artistic form. Even film cannot fully capture the twitch of an eyebrow, the slow thump of a tail that crescendos to pure happiness, or the mixture of love, devotion, pleading, and guilt that fills a dog’s eyes. There are surprisingly endless ways to define doggishness, as seen in this litter of stylistically diverse new releases with three very different takes on what it means to be canine.
Miss Moon: Wise Words From a Dog Governess details a year in the life of a fire-haired young woman who travels to a French island to educate 67 dogs. With one page of establishing narrative, the remainder of the book pairs 20 lessons “for raising happy, healthy, well-mannered pooches – and people” with related portraits. This is Mary Poppins (or Mary Poochins) meets Renoir: the paintings are lush but restrained and the style balances the delightful absurdity of images like a golden retriever picnicking in full Napoleon regalia.
Miss Moon is Janet Hill’s picture-book debut and the distinguished aesthetic, combined with the refined setting and her past work for clients like Tiffany & Co., could have easily resulted in a book for adults masquerading as kid-friendly fare. But there is playfulness, joy, and energy in the paintings that make this pseudo-how-to book extremely accessible. This is one of those “pore-over” books; children will just stare and stare at all the luscious detail. The sheer volume of dogs (there is a class photo naming all 67) creates a delightful menagerie effect similar to that in Dayal Kaur Khalsa’s I Want a Dog, one of the greatest dog picture books of all time.
While Miss Moon has her lessons down pat, Spencer has a harder time with dog education in A Dog Day for Susan. Spencer is the proud owner of a rough and tumble terrier-esque mutt named Barney. Both boy and beast are less than impressed when a prim great-aunt comes to visit, bringing along her dog, Susan, a posh Lhasa Apso. Like her name, Susan is decidedly un-doggish, refusing to get dirty, eat kibble, or respond to a “welcoming butt sniff.” This all changes when Spencer and Barney give her some exposure therapy at the park, teaching her to eat garbage and generally run amok.
The message here is a bit confusing, as a “real” dog is seemingly one that is disobedient. Susan learns a bit about affection, but the emotional connection is lacking as her transformation is defined by her behaviour rather than expressions of comfort or loyalty. Still, the echoes of Lady and the Tramp and Monica Arnaldo’s expressive, true-to-the-text illustrations create a pleasantly benign experience where opposing personalities are entertainingly juxtaposed.
When it comes to a true exposition of the canine soul, author Alison Hughes and illustrator Ashley Spires’s Spare Dog Parts soars. A girl acts as a kind of young Dr. Frankenstein, wearing a white lab coat while building her dream pet from various “leftover parts.” The text is sparse but affecting and verges on poetic at times: describing her dog, the young protagonist says, “She knows all the important things. Like where the sunbeam falls. And the sound of food.”
Spires is an expert at pet portrayal thanks to her popular Binky the Space Cat series, and while she maintains her trademark gentle cartoon style, her drawings are so much more than just pleasant or cute – they are endearingly quirky and surprisingly emotive. The motley dog radiates pure love, devotion, and scampishness whether her tongue is lolling out in anticipation of a belly rub or she is looking on in appreciation as her creator appends a mismatched paw. The text and images combine to create a moving, pure, and affection-filled ode to the mutt.
It should be said that not all dog picture books need to be a celebration of the species; kids are people and not all people like dogs. But whether through a focus on appearance, behaviour, or how they make us feel, a successful dog picture book should leave us with something in our hearts. While Hughes and Spires may be the best in show, Hill’s playful, painterly style and Fergus’s use of clear canine archetypes are undeniably enjoyable. Ear scratches and belly rubs all around.