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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

City Dog, Country Frog

Some of you have been speculating what will be the DUNDERHEADS of this year…that is, a picture book that Jonathan and I think is strong enough under the Newbery criteria to put on our Mock discussion list.

Illustrated books are eligible for the award …they just have be found distinguished on the basis of their text alone.   And DOCTOR DE SOTO, FROG & TOAD TOGETHER, A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN and SHOW WAY are examples of Newbery books that depart from the norm of lengthier text.   As Eric pointed out in one of his recent comments though, it’s hard to imagine how a  slim book  might rise in committee estimations among a herd of substantial ones.

So let’s look at an example. Mo Willem’s CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG (which is beautifully illustrated by Jon Muth, but for the purposes of this discussion we’re going to ignore that).

I appreciate the sparseness of Willem’s text, and the way he gets so much into the first page: “City Dog didn’t stop on that first day in the country;  he ran as far and as fast as he could….and all without a leash!”  Immediately the reader feels the rush and excitement of a new and possibly illicit adventure.   In very few lines, a friendship progresses.  The “chapter” breaks of seasons set the story in a familiar pattern for a very young reader, with a comforting refrain: “That was spring. [summer, fall…]”  A 3 or 4 year old is new at narrative structure, and this provides a beautiful framing device.

So the story unfolds, pitched perfectly to a preschool audience. But what makes it rise above for me is the ending, where Willem distinguishes himself in “interpretation of theme or concept” and “delineation of characters”  (to call on the award criteria). For here {SPOILER ALERT!}, where the savvy preschooler sees where she thinks she’s being taken (Dog is going to find Frog, right?), she finds instead that Dog has made the creative and mature leap of modeling the friendship that Frog first extended to Dog.  This totally blows the 4 year old mind, as she might suddenly see a telescoping story, forward and back, or imagine the future adventures of Dog and Chipmunk, or grieve for the lack of Frog or…  the point is that what seemed like it was heading to a pat and closed ending instead explodes into a myriad of possibilities, delightfully, and with musicality: “But you’ll do.” 

What do you think? Anyone used this with preschoolers?  Or have another picture book to put up for contention?

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. What about Bink & Gollie? The pictures and text work so well together, but I think the text is really the strength. Might it be considered a Newbery longshot?

  2. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Ach. I’m afraid that I’m not a particular fan of this one. The four-year-old inside of me is hopelessly frustrated by the lack of closure regarding that frog. Is it dead? Hibernating? What, the dog is just going to go on and forget about it? And, wait, you can just replace your dead (or disappeared) friends lickety-split like that? Does this mean that in the future the dog will be dealing with a disappearing and presumably dead chipmunk too?

    I think a picture book could have a chance this year, but I do not think that this one has a shot. The language is quite nice but the story doesn’t answer any questions and leaves a certain kind of reader steaming mad. Mea culpa, pigeon man.

  3. After a week of reading KNUFFLE BUNNY FREE to my students, I am plotting the construction of the official Mo Willems alter of adoration. What is in that man’s head that allows him, in very few words, to connect to readers from 2 and a half to 87 and a half?

    I read CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG a few months back to my summer library crowd. This differed from my usual single-grade-level audience to include anyone from toddlers to teenagers. Not every book works with such a diverse group. This baby did.

    I don’t believe I just added to the criteria dialogue. Apparently I just wanted to fawn.

  4. Does CD,CF remind anyone else of Stephen Stills’ Love the One You’re With? Or is it just me.

  5. Have to look more carefully at CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG before weighing in.

    I’ve been reading aloud BINK AND GOLLIE and tried to do it without showing the illustrations, but the kids needed them to get the humor.

    As for other picture books, Jonathan already mentioned them, but I’ll second HERE COMES THE GARBAGE BARGE and SNOOK ALONE.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I love the friendship here which contains echoes other classic friendships from the Newbery canon: Frog and Toad, Wilbur and Charlotte, Jess and Leslie.

    For the sake of comparison, here are some word counts: LIKE JAKE AND ME (2383), FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER (2281), DOCTOR DE SOTO (1114), SHOW WAY (1060), MILLIONS OF CATS (965), and CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG (329).

    Those 329 words come from a controlled vocabulary of 116 words, and if we can count these as variations of the same word–sniff/sniffing, bark/barking, fetch/fetching, fall/falling, remembered/remember-ing, smile/smiled, frog/frog’s/froggy, play/played, do/doing, and sit/sat/sitting–then we can knock that down to 104 words. Again for the sake of comparison, THE CAT IN THE HAT 1621 words from a controlled vocabulary of 236. So as we evaluate the text of CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG, I think it’s not only important to evaluate it as a read aloud text, but also a beginning reader, considering how Willems uses such things as repetition, predictability, consonant clusters, syllable count, compound words, and punctuation, to name just a few.

    Consider the first page spread–

    City Dog didn’t stop on
    that first day in the country;
    he ran as far and as fast as he could
    and all without a leash

    Right off the bat, I’m draw to the alliteration (dog/didn’t/day and first/far/fast and country/could). I’m also drawn to the assonance (the short i in “city” and “didn’t” as well as the aw sound in “dog” and “stop” and “on” and “far”

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Aaargh! I accidentally hit the submit button and I can’t even edit my own comment. How ridiculous is that!

    Anyway, I also wanted to point out some consonance, namely the sibilant sounds (city, stop, first, fast, leash) and the repetition of several words (and, as, he). The juxtaposition of the repetition, alliteration, and assonance, heightened here by the the contrast of multiple sounds, gives the text a pleasing cadence and rhythm. My whole point here is that, despite using words with only one or two syllables, Willems nevertheless uses them quite artfully.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Really hate to dribble my thoughts out here, but I also wanted to say that the fact that Willems forces the reader/listener to infer what happens to the frog is a strength of the book and leads (as Nina mentioned) to more varied reading experiences, a hallmark of great literature.

  9. Interesting. Because when I read City Dog, Country Frog, I immediately decided this was my top (or near the top) choice for the Caldecott winner. I thought the pictures were what really made the book so excellent. Wasn’t as impressed with the words. I love all the expression in the dog’s body.

    The words were so simple, I kind of looked past them. But Jonathan has some good points.

    Bottom line, maybe this book should win the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award — where they can consider the book as a whole, words and pictures together.

  10. Late to this comment thread, but I have to say…I stood in my little indie bookstore reading this for the first time, and I literally got chills before I turned the last page, because I *knew* what Dog was going to say next. It was that perfect for me.

    And I don’t think that the concept of a relationship that ends without full closure is new to young children, either–babysitters and nannies come and go, classmates at preschool come and go. We don’t always get a chance to say goodbye.

    I took a Junior Great Books class a million years ago, and one of the things I remember most is how the most powerful questions for discussion are the ones that no one–not even the group leader–knows the answer to. I love books where at the end, I can genuinely say to a child’s questions, “I don’t know! What do *you* think?” All the same, I don’t think this is a book for storytime, but I did give it 5 stars. And I did go look up whether frogs hibernate over the winter or not!

  11. What!
    What happened to the frog? My students were absolutely upset that they didn’t know what happened to the frog? The illustrations are amazing, but the story, I’m not that impressed with this one. Really went no where, I expected quite a bit more.
    The kids loved it until the frog disappeared and never came back. It was a good teaching moment as we were able to talk about where the frog could have gone, what would be a better ending etc.

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