Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. For Molly Akita – the protagonist in Deborah Kerbel’s new picture book – it takes the form of a pack of stray dogs running wild in her head, “[scratching] at her brain, begging to be let out.” Until, that is, the little girl discovers she can tame the canine tormentors by drawing pictures of them. The adults in her life don’t fully understand the importance of art to Molly’s well-being. Her grandmother sees all the pieces of scribbled-on papers as a mess to be picked up, and her teacher Ms. Shepherd thinks Molly isn’t paying attention in class.
When Molly’s dogs show up on the classroom blackboard (instead of her math answers), she’s reprimanded, triggering an overwhelming fight-or-flight response. Molly races out of the classroom, trailed by her chalk animals. Lost and alone, the child hides in a garden shed, where she uses the concrete wall as a canvas. She adds thoughtful details like coats to keep the dogs warm and bowls of food – creature comforts she is also in need of. Molly is discovered safe and sound the next morning and the story takes a subtle, symbolic turn, with Ms. Shepherd giving the little girl the acknowledgement and acceptance she needs to thrive.
Debut picture-book illustrator Lis Xu’s surreal, soft-focus coloured-pencil scenes are full of figuratively significant details. When Molly can’t sleep on the eve of the first day of school, her emotional manifestations initially appear menacing: black dogs with pointy ears on high alert, looming large in the shadows. Later, Molly’s drawings of friendly pooches with wagging tails are prominently displayed and validated at home.
Kerbel offers poetic and prescient insight into mental wellness, without a whiff of didacticism. And the lesson here – that Molly isn’t misbehaving but trying to maintain control of the anxiety nipping at her heels – is not for kids as much as for inattentive grown-ups.