Beware the children’s librarian entrenched in the same old, same old. One of the risks of the profession is that when children’s librarians grow jaded, they start to rely upon the same five to eight books for all their storytimes. Toddlers today? Haul out The Noisy Counting Book. Preschoolers? Where’s my Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime? School age kids? Katie Loves the Kittens it is. All fine books but variety is the spice of life, no? The cure for this unfortunate condition is to find picture books that upset the expectations of not only the children in attendance but their parents as well. With that in mind, it’s always a good idea to pep up your readings with something like Kevin Sherry’s I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean or Guess Again! by Mac Barnett. Finding the little subversive gems that combine the unexpected with great readaloud potential is difficult. On a good year you might find one or two, but only if you look hard. Publishers don’t like these risky titles and are far more prone to publish yet another wuvy dovey kittens and puppies book than something with a little bite and sting. Hence my current adoration of A Dog is a Dog by Stephen Shaskan. Seemingly normal and utterly unexpected, this is one little title that neatly flips the readers’ expectations upside down while also luring in the kids. In short, a rarity.
In rhyming verse we learn about the many qualities of a dog. It remains a dog “whether it’s naughty . . . or nice. / Whether it suns on the beach, / or glides on the ice.” Seems pretty normal. You might think this was just a book about the various qualities of dogs. That is, until you get to, “A dog is a dog, if it’s skinny or fat. / A dog is a dog, unless it’s a . . .” Turn the page and suddenly there’s a “CAT!” removing its dog costume. Now the book talks about what makes a cat . . . unless it’s a squid. Squid becomes moose and finally, when all is said and done, the moose costume is removed to reveal . . . a dog!
So I’m reading this book quietly to myself since it’s come in and I like to give all picture books at least a once over before I decide whether or not to review them. Shaskan’s dog is appealing, as is the art in general, but I’m reading through it with half my mind somewhere else when I get to that first picture of the cat removing its dog costume. The dog’s head is off, leaving only this eyeless shell of an animal. You get this initial shock, followed by laughter. Mostly. Some kids are going to be under the distinct impression that the cat skinned the dog and is wearing its skin (though a zipper appears on the first dog costume it would have been a useful detail on the subsequent cat, squid, moose ones as well). This is easy enough to laugh off, but forewarned is forearmed. For every twenty kids who love this book there will be one that screams and runs in horror. I mean, sure the empty costumes are all smiling at the end, but there’s something about the way that squid’s tentacle hangs off the moose’s antler that feels … awry.
Good thing the text is so perky. The rhymes work, though sometimes they require the visuals to make sense. For example, the line “A cat is a cat if it didn’t . . . or did!” requires the reader to notice that for the “didn’t” the cat is protesting its innocence beside an empty fishbowl, while next to “… or did” it’s merrily downing the fish in question. Folks reading this book aloud to large groups will need to make the executive decision of whether or not to explain this fact to their listeners or plow on through so that they can get to the subsequent squid related rhyme. It’s a lot of fun getting to turn the page and announce the next animal too. By the time you’ve gotten through the moose, kids may start trying to guess what the next animal will be. I can see them screaming out “HOG!” when the book says, “A moose is a moose, in the clear . . . or the fog. / A moose is a moose, unless it’s a . . .” When that last dog arrives, expect some big time laughs.
Wood backgrounds. That’s the name of the game in picture books today. You’ll usually find them in books like those by Stefano Vitale or Paul Zelinsky’s Swamp Angel and Dust Devil. Then there are the books that use faux wood in some way. The border in Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown is a good example of this, and now we’ve A Dog is a Dog as well. Shaskan, to my surprise, rendered all the art in this book digitally (doesn’t look it). As a result, he’s able to create a kind of faux wooden background for a lot of these pictures. It’s a fascinating choice. With the option of doing nothing with the backgrounds, why include this detail? As my husband put it, you can tell this guy went to RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) because “RISD drips from every pore”. That may be but sometimes when you’re looking at a well-designed book the images inside are so humorless. Not a problem here. Shaskan just has this natural affinity for the funny. I think that’s what encouraged me to read it in the first place. Whether he’s drawing a jet skiing squid or a prancing moose (my favorite image in the book, actually) there’s a great deal of fun and joy to these images.
From a readaloud standpoint something about the cadences of this book reminded me of nothing so much as Scott Fischer’s Jump!. Actually, these two books would pair together really well. Fischer’s sections always end with the instruction to “Jump!” while this book uses the same technique to introduce each new animal. Now I won’t lie to you. There’s a certain species of parent that won’t like this book and there’s a certain species of child that will feel the same way. That said, a lot of kids are going to dig this delightful, semi-creepy story. If you use it in a storytime, expect a lot of them to request it the next time you do a reading. And if you agree to do so, don’t feel bad or like you’re calling it in. Books like this one deserve multiple reads. You may find more details of interest on a second or third encounter too.
On shelves October 13th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Video: Doubt the kid appeal? This trailer will have you thinking otherwise.