Dogs and Cats by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $16.00.
It must be very frustrating to work in the field of cut-paper picture books these days. I imagine your average collage artist will spend countless hours trying to get an illustration or scene just right in their book. At long last they will sigh, wipe the sweat from their forehead, and go out to treat themselves to a bagel or muffin. On the way to the bakery, however, they might pass a bookstore and there, propped up prominently in the window, will sit a book by Steve Jenkins. It has to sting. I mean, the guy is phenomenal. He makes it look so easy, as if he wakes up each and every morning saying, "Hmm… I know exactly how to make an image of a cat mid-pounce using just a little torn paper." The thing about Steve, though, is that no matter how many of his books you’ve read/agonized over the brilliance of, you always want to see what’s up his sleeve next. That would have to be his latest title, "Dogs and Cats". Guaranteed to give library catalogers nationwide a headache ("Do I put it in the dog section or the cat section, and for that matter which cover’s the front cover???") the book is a delightful little piece of eclectic non-fiction.
Hold the book in front of your face at arm’s length. Very good. You are now looking at the image of a cat. Now flip the book end-over-end in your hands. See that? Now you’re looking at the image of a dog. "Dogs and Cats" is one of those titles where there really isn’t a preferred beginning. Readers can discover the history and status of man’s best friend first, or they may wish to learn about the world’s most perfect predator instead. The two animals are examined at length with a variety of different cut-paper illustrations dotting the way. We discover what it means for an animal to be one breed or another. We learn how these creatures were domesticated in the first place and how their body language conveys what they’re feeling. We see them in the earliest stages of life, and then labeled and categorized from the tips of their nose to the whiskers on their faces. Jenkins breaks up the text regularly with his unique images and when you have finished one section you merely flip the book over and start reading from the other end to learn even more. It is the rare book that will satisfy both dog and cat lovers alike. Rare and wonderful.
Of course, he can’t do everything. When your images are created out of a material that is essentially two-dimensional, it can sometimes be difficult to convey a sheer lack of any dimension at all. So it is that the flat-faced Persian kitty in this book doesn’t look flattened so much as it’s merely wide. This is an aberration more than anything else, of course. For the most part, Jenkins does a magnificent job capturing everything from the ripples in a Shar-Pei’s skin to the bended ears of the Scottish Fold. The aggressive baring of a Dalmatian’s teeth is, for those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of such a creature, shockingly true-to-life. And, as always, it’s the energy and action in the book that’s so remarkable. These cats and dogs look as if they are engaged in serious play. I don’t know how you create an ecstatic leap out of wood fibers. However it is, Jenkins knows the secret and he doles it out with skill. I also loved the sheer range of materials here. A dog might be made out of marbleized paper or thick gray fibers. And Jenkins doesn’t just create animals with his paper. He’s just as adept at showing the white ripples around a Newfoundland swimming in the sea or the brown of an early human hut.
My standard complaint with children’s non-fiction is that the authors don’t always think to include any reference sources. The very layout of "Dogs and Cats" would have made that difficult, of course. I mean, unless you crammed it all in teeny tiny letters on the publication page below the first leaping cat, or else stuffed it in the center of the book, there’s no logical place to hide such info. That doesn’t mean I’m letting Mr. Jenkins off the hook, of course. I don’t care what the age of your readership may be. When you present facts of one kind or another, you should always make at least one broad hint as to where you got your info. Otherwise we could be reading a book with facts found via Wikipedia for all we know. Still, for all that the information is not credited, the text appears to be very diverse and interesting. I’ll admit that there were all kinds of things in this book that I didn’t really know. Wolves, dogs, cats, bears, and weasels are all descended from a creature called a Miacis? Who knew? And they still don’t know how a cat purrs? Huh.
I get kids in my library all the time asking for dog and cat books. What they usually want are books with photographs of those animals. Sometimes I accede to their demands, but once we get "Dogs and Cats" on our shelves, I’ll be heartily thrusting this title at them as often as I can. Great images and fabulous facts should give those budding vets something to pore over in their spare time. It’s a fun book, an educational book, and a visual stunner. Not a shabby combo if I do say so myself.