Nothing But a Dog
Timmy and Lassie. Henry and Ribsy. Henry and Mudge. Shiloh, Sounder, Old Yeller. All great, classic stories. All beautiful illustrations of the so-called timeless bond between boy and dog. But where are the stories about girl and dog? There’s Because of Winn-Dixie and it, too, is a deservedly award-winning classic. But where is the rest of the canon? Finally, Opel and Winn-Dixie have worthwhile company with Nothing But a Dog, by Bobbi Katz, a picture book which manages to be both sophisticated and fun-loving.
Nothing But a Dog is told in the voice of a young girl who has a well thought-out argument about why when you long for a dog, nothing but a dog will do. Not parakeets, squirrels or kittens. Not soft, furry boots. There’s no activity fun enough to compensate, either. It is in the enumeration and illustrations of these allegedly lesser activities that the book really soars. In vibrant watercolors by Jane Manning, the girl “works at her own workbench with real tools,” rides a grown-up bike and climbs trees with a hat designating her Vice President of the Tree Climbers’ Club. (Another girl is president. A boy in the picture appears several branches below, but the girls are clearly the leaders). As the lively illustrations make clear, none of these activities are anywhere near the boring wasteland of time that the girl claims. But when you long for a dog, even playing the trumpet or going to monster movies (another wonderful illustration with the girls looking blasé and the boys terrified in their seats) can’t quell the longing.
The girl, although she remains unnamed, is real and appealing. She is calm, thoughtful, and adventurous, and knows how to present a convincing argument. Does she prevail in the end? Her parents, who make their only appearance on the last page, respond just the way one would hope to a daughter who knows how to vividly present her case.
Nothing But a Dog will appeal to both children and parents. While some children’s books about pets strive to present the sobering reality (it’s a lot of responsibility, kids!), this one is all about the joyous, free-form, muddy, messy, incomparable, unconditional love between child and dog. And, yes, it’s a lovely change to have that child be a girl.
Parents will be quick to notice that the book leaves out the darker side of dog ownership. Where are the chewed carpets, the scarred cabinets, the poor dead soles? (I refer to shoes and slippers.) The puddles? The vet bills? The forced marches through blizzards with small-bladdered pups? In case you’re wondering, yes, we did recently bring home a puppy in the middle of a Chicago winter. And that is precisely why I wanted to read this book. The magic of dog ownership was lost to me somewhere between February and the realization that the rugs were no longer salvageable. The wonder of the guaranteed happy greeting faded as I considered how our new friend resembled Tigger if Tigger were to be reincarnated as a weapon of mass destruction. I badly needed to recapture the messy magic. Perhaps it was a reflection of my mental state that before I read the book, I kept mistakenly referring to it as, “Anything But a Dog.” But meeting this lovely, strong girl and drinking in the illustrations has gone a long way towards reminding me why we all love a good girl-and-her-dog story.