Right over here! Look this way! Over here! TWEET! You looking? Yeah, so right over we’ve got ourselves a Patrick Jennings fan. Yup. Patrick Jennings. The guy who wrote that fantastic We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes, along with approximately a hundred other books. You’ve read him, right? No? Well that’s fine with me. It’s like when you discover this cool underground band, and you get to be their biggest fan all by yourself. It’s great. You walk around with this knowledge in your head of, “I am into something incredible that only I know about.” That’s how it is with Patrick Jennings and me. Problem is, I keep recommending his books to the kids in my library. And if I keep this up, I may end up unexpectedly creating a whole host of Jennings fans. Then he’ll get hugely popular and go mainstream and I’ll have to share him with the rest of the world. After all, he’s a fantastic author who writes primarily animal books (not many folks do that these days, y’know) and who’s latest title Guinea Dog is just about the most fun you can get out of a book about a guinea pig with ambitions.
“My dream of a dog died then and there. Instead, I was the proud owner/caretaker of a plump, punk guinea sow. Like, yippee.” Rufus is a pretty easy guy to figure out. He wants a dog. A dog is all his wants, in fact. His father, unfortunately, is dead set against this idea, and what Rufus’s dad says goes. That is, until the day Rufus’s mom brings home a guinea pig as a kind of compromise. Rufus is not impressed, nor is his dad, but this guinea pig, dubbed Fido, is hardly normal. She pants. She fetches. She plays dead on command. And ever so slowly, while dealing with some best friend issues at school, Rufus starts to see the advantages to having a pet that isn’t exactly like everyone else’s.
Now the dialogue in this book is nothing short of divine. Snarky kids are not easy to write. Not so as they sound like real kids anyway. And Jennings has created a particularly smart alecky type of kid. Fortunately he’s old enough to believably come up with the lines put in his mouth. Some of my favorites include the moment when Fido starts making too much noise and Rufus’s dad asks what the racket is. “I pointed at Fido. `Why, it’s the quiet, clean pet Mom bought me’.” I like that Jennings feels no need to telegraph that line by inserting an “I said sarcastically”. He shows, and doesn’t tell, this author. In terms of descriptions Rufus says of himself that he has, “a neck that could stop growing any time without any complaint from me.” He says of his father, “That’s what Dad can do to you. He can make you forget you have a chubby rat in a sack on your back.” And he later mentions that since he’s a better staller than a liar, “Maybe one day I’ll write my own book: The Complete Dork’s Guide to Hemming and Hawing.”
It’s interesting to see where Jennings puts his point of view in his stories. In the aforementioned We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes the hero of the book was Crusher, a snake. She was inclined to view the world with a particularly snakey take. Guinea Dog, in contrast, is entirely from Rufus (the boy’s) point of view. The guinea pig is left as a kind of a mysterious entity. Her thoughts are her own, hidden from human understanding. Jennings also isn’t afraid of creating female animals in his books. The heroine of We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes was a lady snake. In this book Fido is a female guinea pig (dog). I’m sure you could make all kinds of interesting psychological interpretations of what a boy/female pet pairing really means, but all I care is that we’re getting some strong girl characters in our kids’ books. Even if those girls do happen to be covered in scales and fur.
The little details are what I like best of all, though. We have finally gotten to the point in children’s literature where parents have jobs like editing golf online magazines from home. So that was a realistic, not to say contemporary, detail that I appreciated. I also loved that Rufus’s hobby was collecting Scrabble tiles.
Not that there weren’t a couple moments that didn’t entirely gel with the rest of the book. For example, there was a time when I was confused about Rufus’s devotion to his new pet. One minute he’s dead set against having Fido adopted by a girl in his class. Next minute he’s saying, “I didn’t want them – especially Mom – to have any extra reasons to want to keep her [the guinea pig:].” It didn’t happen very often, but once in a while I was confused.
The book would actually pair bee-autifully with Wishworks Inc. by Stephanie Tolan. In that early chapter book too a boy wants a beautiful, strong, independent dog of his own… and ends up with an unexpected pet instead. At least you can say that Rufus got himself a better behaved breed of dog-wannabe. And since 2010 is the year for good guinea pig-related literature, you might also pair it with Hamster and Cheese by Colleen AF Venable. That female guinea pig has more of a bedhead hairdo, however, while Fido’s hair is described as having a punk rock look.
Guinea Dog does not contain a big story arc, all things considered. That is fine. Not every book has to include an epic quest or enormous fights between characters. Jennings thinks that we’ll be content with this tale of a boy trying to understand both his best friend and his new pet, and he’s right. We really are content with that. We’re content because the writing is strong, the characters a lot of fun, and the story just plain enjoyable. You don’t need to be a fan of guinea pigs to enjoy this book. Heck, you don’t need to be a fan of dogs either for that matter. All you need to be a fan of is fun books for kids. Books that everyone can enjoy. Consider this a great readaloud for classes, or for kids who are comfortable with chapter book but are scared of 200+ page tomes. There’s a little bit of something everyone can enjoy in this newest Jennings number.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: I don’t usually do this, but I decided to go through the Jennings description of Rufus (from Rufus’s point of view) and compare it to the character on the cover. The similarities are so close that I am shocked. The book says of Rufus, “plain, skinny boy in worn jeans and the T-shirt he slept in with scraggly brown hair, a small chin with a slight crease down the middle, a small nose that tilted up and showed too much nostril, and a neck that could stop growing any time without complaint from me.” With the exception of the t-shirt (and that’s from a different scene anyway) the boy on the cover is done just right. Interestingly, this same amount of detail doesn’t extend to the guinea pig herself since the text describes her as having “creepy toes (four on her front paws, three on her back ones).” On the cover she appears to have just three on her front, though perhaps the fourth is hidden from view. The illustrator of the cover is one Ms. Patricia Castelao, a Spaniard if I do not miss my guess, and the woman who is responsible for one of the most entertaining interpretations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan I’ve ever seen. In short, an excellent artist, and she has done very well by this cover. For one thing, the book sometimes makes it hard to figure out how big Fido is. Ms. Castelao eschews that problem entirely by having Fido close to the viewer and Rufus farther back in the distance.
Source: Advanced Reader’s Galley sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews: GeekDad
- The always and ever delightful Jaime Temairik gives us the inside scoop on the book, how it began, and the animal the guinea pig used to be.
- And Why Write? considers Mr. Jennings as an author and speaker.