New Picture Books Bring Dogs and Cats to Life, Hilariously
It’s almost too easy to write children’s books in which cats and dogs are the heroes and protagonists. By definition, our favorite pets are already amazing characters with distinct and hilarious personalities who loom large in our lives and imagination. But this spring brings a few standouts that young picture book listeners and readers will love.
You know that dream you have where you’re trying to get somewhere, but every time you think you’ve arrived, a trapdoor flies open or something slips from your hands or you’re a split second too late to catch the train? The adorably frustrating HOW TO GIVE YOUR CAT A BATH: In Five Easy Steps (Tundra, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 7), written by Nicola Winstanley (“Cinnamon Baby”) and illustrated by John Martz (“A Cat Named Tim”), is the preschool version of that. The mission is simple: An ambitious little girl with two bright pink buns wants to give her cat, Mr. Flea, a bath. The execution of this plan? Not so simple.
There’s the matter of water temperature and level, not to mention the fact that we are talking about, um, a cat. Mr. Flea, like most members of his species, isn’t a huge fan of getting wet, and before we know it, five steps become 10-plus steps, as Mr. Flea’s owner gives chase around the house, scarfing down cookies (a crucial step, naturally) and destroying the house along the way. Reminiscent of the “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” series, it will have young readers slapping their foreheads in exasperation, but will reward them with a sweet, funny ending. (As well as a lesson: Sometimes the easiest way to do something is the most obvious.) Martz’s colorful line drawings match the happy, manic energy.
Unlike many of the cats who appear in children’s books (and New Yorker cartoons for that matter), the protagonist of BRUNO, THE STANDING CAT (Random House, 48 pp. $17.99; ages 3 to 7), written by Nadine Robert and illustrated by Jean Jullien, possesses none of the stereotypical calculating aloofness that makes our feline friends such ready-made caricatures. What he does have, however, is a very special trait: He can stand upright on two legs, just like a human!
After Bruno shows up in a cardboard box on young Peter’s doorstep, the two become fast friends, as they romp through parks and play house together and celebrate all the remarkable things Bruno can do that typical cats cannot. Bruno can’t chase mice, but he can ride a skateboard. He can’t chase a ball of yarn, but he can pour a cup of tea. He doesn’t scratch his claws everywhere, but he knows how to blow a bubble with bubble gum. Upside down! Peter takes tremendous pride in his new friend’s uniqueness, and the evergreen message is as satisfying as ever: Fitting in is soooo boring! Fans of the French illustrator Jullien will recognize his signature graphic images and his gift for infusing humor into the simplest of renderings. It’s hard to look at Bruno’s expressive yellow eyeballs and not laugh.
Drooly fool. Sardine stinker. Sheepskin with legs. Werewolf. Wet mop. Mangy. Shredhead. These are only a fraction of the words used to address the poor, nameless hero of DUMPSTER DOG! (Enchanted Lion, 64 pp., $17.99; ages 7 to 10), written by Colas Gutman and illustrated by Marc Boutavant; translated by Claudia Bedrick and Allison M. Charette. This chapter book — already popular in France, where it has been made into a hit TV show — is for kids who can appreciate a little more action and a lot more voice in their reading. (There’s more than a hint of Lemony Snicket’s dark hilarity in Gutman’s writing.)
Born in a garbage can and best friends with Flat Cat (so named for being run over by a truck at 3 months old), our friend may be the most lovable ding-a-ling to come along since Amelia Bedelia. He dreams of finding an owner even while he’s not entirely sure what an owner is. After some hapless adventures as a failed guard dog, he finds his forever home by doing what dogs do best: being resilient and remaining loyal to those who count on him. Boutavant’s characters aren’t your typical cute and cuddly types — they’re rough around the edges and a little off. (Think George Booth’s famously agitated pets.) In other words, they look exactly how you want them to look.
In OLIVE & PEKOE: In Four Short Walks (Greenwillow, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 3 to 7), written by Jacky Davis (the Ladybug Girl series) and illustrated by Giselle Potter (“This Is My Dollhouse”), the title characters have their differences, like most friends. Olive is old and wise, Pekoe is young and starry-eyed. Olive is patient and calm, Pekoe is excitable and rambunctious. Olive sees the big picture, Pekoe has a hard time seeing beyond what’s right in front of him, as when they encounter a mean dog and rowdy play at the dog park. “Pekoe is bothered by some of their rough behavior, Olive understands that most dogs are all bark and no bite.”
The adventures of the two mixed-breed dogs are organized not by four acts but by four walks, and we get to watch the affectionate dynamic unfold between the friends as they walk in the woods, console each other during a thunderstorm and encounter a chipmunk. On that last walk: “Olive is not impressed to see a chipmunk darting through the leaves. Pekoe can’t believe how great it is that the world has chipmunks in it.” It’s a good reminder that one of the strongest cases for having a friend who is different is that you get to see the world through a completely different set of eyes. Potter’s artwork will remind you of classic Maira Kalman: warm, colorful, somehow both fanciful and sophisticated.
We’ve all heard it before: Live with your pet long enough and you start to resemble each other — maybe even rub off on each other. In the charming MY CAT LOOKS LIKE MY DAD (Owlkids, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), by Thao Lam (“Wallpaper”), the narrator walks us through how similar her mop-headed father is to their lazy, shaggy cat. They look alike, they share an affection for milk and sardines (“ewwww”); they stretch early in the morning and nap in the afternoon; they’re afraid of heights and aren’t exactly the tidiest members of the house.
A special twist at the end serves to remind us that family can be defined in many ways beyond blood and physical resemblance, and when you spend enough time with someone, share a house and meals and the most mundane moments of day-to-day life, that’s as good a definition as any. Lam’s brightly colored paper-collage illustrations are unique and silly, a winning combination.