Picks of the Litter: Dog Picture Books for Every Child — and Grown-Up

Romantic love, platonic love, parental love — I’d hate to live without any of them. But dog love took me by surprise a year ago, when it arrived relatively late in life with Marco, my first dog. So, like many before me, I became a seeker-outer of dog books. Dog picture books, especially, which are easy to enjoy with or without a child. (If you doubt that, please watch the YouTube video of Betty White reading “Harry the Dirty Dog,” which has over five million views.) All animals have lessons for us, but none have as much to show fledgling humans — and some of us older ones — about finding and losing, playing and working, caring and staying true. And the creators of dog picture books deliver those while blatantly dialing up the emotions — who can forget the scene in “Madeline’s Rescue” where Genevieve gives birth to 11 puppies? In that grand tradition, these five new books are the pick of the litter.

Cori Doerrfeld’s wonderful “The Rabbit Listened” used a stuffed bunny to offer a gentle tutorial in the magic of staying quiet and letting children express what’s bothering them, and now in GOOD DOG (HarperCollins, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 6) she tells a more playful but equally satisfying tale of a stray dog who finds his person in the form of a little girl who has lost her stuffed bear. Each page has just two words, one of them “dog” — “hungry dog,” “hopeful dog,” “brave dog” — while Doerrfeld’s soft, pleasingly round illustrations make clear what’s happening. Non-dog owners, beware the page where she turns to her parents and says, “My dog?”

Another kind of who-rescued-whom story is FOUND. (Simon & Schuster, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 8), by Jeff Newman and Larry Day, a sweet narrative that unfolds through pictures alone, with words appearing only in signs and objects in the background. We see a sad girl looking out the window, and a brown dog wandering in the rain. She takes him up the stairs of her rowhouse. He settles in, and she feeds him from a dog bowl labeled “Prudence”; she’s less sure about letting him play with Prudence’s ball. On a jaunt to the pet store to buy a new ball, she spots a poster: Someone’s looking for the dog she found. She gathers herself and returns him to his rightful owners. On the walk home, a sad bulldog peers out a shelter window, and on the last page we glimpse that dog scampering out of view in her house.

The story is so tightly constructed there’s almost no room for interpretation, and I like that. The vigorous pen-and-ink art leaves a lot of white space on the page, with just occasional washes of color, adding to a sense that the book is a straightforward puzzle you’re solving with visual clues, like the colors of the balls that belong to each dog. Of course, there’s an overarching fantasy element — the girl appears to live with no parents and no adult figures intrude on her decision-making. But isn’t that one of the best things dogs can give kids, a sense of their own power?

The delightful comics-style GOOD ROSIE! (Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99; ages 4 to 8), written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Harry Bliss, stars a little white and brown terrier named Rosie. She has a pleasant daily routine with her owner, George, but she doesn’t have any dog friends, so she’s lonely. (You suspect George, a fussily dressed older gentleman with a balding dome of a head, may be lonely too.) One day, George takes Rosie to the dog park, where a St. Bernard named Maurice tries to befriend her. Rosie feels he’s too big and loud. Then an irritatingly “small, yippy” dog named Fifi arrives. Again, no. Rosie is lonely even at the dog park. But a mishap occurs: Maurice almost swallows tiny Fifi. After Rosie delivers a strategic bite on the leg, Maurice coughs Fifi back up. She is fine, though her collar now says “Fif.” Is friendship possible after all that? You bet! The newly renamed Fif leads the way, asking Rosie directly, “Do you want to be friends with a dog named Fif?” The final page shows a grinning George looking on as the dog friends play — and he’s flanked by two ladies who must be the owners of Fif and Maurice.

DiCamillo, whose many books include the Newbery Medal-winning “The Tale of Despereaux,” packs an emotional punch in picture books, chapter books or novels, and Bliss is a wry New Yorker cartoonist and the author-illustrator of the sophisticated picture books “Grace for Gus” and “Luke on the Loose.” Together they’ve created a remarkable guide to making friends: Be honest and direct about what you want, and don’t bite. “Good Rosie!” is divided into eight sections, like mini-chapters, slowing down the pace and making it not just a good read-aloud but a fantastic choice for newly independent readers.

Marla Frazee’s LITTLE BROWN (Beach Lane, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), a parable about a dog with no friends who hoards all the toys at the dog park, is an unusual dog book in that it’s frankly dark, beginning with the muddy colors and foreboding look of its tall pages. Frazee, the creator of “Boss Baby” and many other brilliantly funny and pointed picture books, is not so much offering a lesson as challenging her audience to do better, be more just and kind, figure out how everyone can get a fair share. The dog named Little Brown begins the book “cranky” and alienated, and at the end he’s still cranky and alienated, only he’s sitting atop a pile of treasure. Two questions linger: Is he lonely because he’s greedy, or is he greedy because he’s lonely? And how can we fix a situation like this, where a tyrant calls the shots? “Maybe tomorrow they would know what to do,” the book ends. In 2018 America it’s hard to take that as hopeful, but I’m trying.

If the state of the world or anything else is putting you in need of a good cry, I recommend Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s BLUE (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 8). It’s another book that uses only two words on each page. This time the phrases all include the word blue — “chilly blue,” “true blue” — the better to show off Seeger’s thick, brushy art and die-cut holes, which are reminiscent of her Caldecott Honor-winning “Green.” Seeger walks you through the life span of a good dog belonging to a little boy who grows to be a man just as the dog passes into the great beyond. (It’s a tip of the hat, perhaps, to the folk song “Old Blue.”) The ending made both me and my husband cry. Our 8-year-old son seemed unmoved, but that may be because his first dog is still young. Still, his reaction tugged at my heart, making me realize that some day, he’ll come back to the book with sadder, wiser eyes. Tempus fugit, but especially, it seems, when you love a dog.

Maria Russo is the children’s books editor at the Book Review.

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