The dog is a familiar figure in Canadian letters. As Leon Rooke demonstrates in Shakespeare's Dog, a pet's perspective on the world can be quite revealing. In children's books, the Canadian literary dog functions as observer, companion, comedian, and object of desire. Picture-books appear to be the preferred format: an intimate thirty-two pages of words and pictures showcase the adventures of our ever-resourceful, beloved canine friends. Here is a look at some of the best, whether widely acclaimed or undeservedly obscure.
First meet the intrepid Our Dog, who accompanied Alexander Mackenzie on his journey to the Pacific in 1793. Ainslie Manson's A Dog Came, Too (Groundwood, 1992) is based on Mackenzie's own account of the expedition. This fine picture-book tale, along with gentle watercolours by Ann Blades, presents a portrait of a dog who, while acting as guard and loyal companion to Mackenzie and his men, still maintains his independence. Our Dog's trek is on land-a very long walk-while the Mackenzie party travels by canoe. He even manages to track down the explorer and his party after they have left camp without him, his hardships mirroring their own. Fidelity, thy name is Fido.
Though it chronicles an adventure, A Dog Came, Too is a quiet, almost contemplative book. Its subdued tone owes much to the washes and pastel palette used by Blades. The same illustrator recreates the serenity and danger of the winter woods in the Canadian Library Association Book for the Year for Children, Mary of Mile 18 (Tundra, 1971), which Blades also wrote. Young Mary Fehr lives with her close-knit Mennonite family in an isolated B. C. community on the Alaska Highway. Whenever she sees the Northern Lights she hopes something special will happen.and sure enough, she finds a part-wolf puppy outside during a bitter cold snap. Mary's father sternly tells her she cannot keep the puppy, which she's already named Wolf-only working animals are allowed in their household. Luckily Wolf has a chance to prove himself hardy, brave, and useful, for a happy ending.
Marilynn Reynolds (as writer) and Stephen McCallum (as illustrator) have collaborated on several modest but thoroughly engaging picture-books about country life. A Dog for a Friend (Orca, 1994) is set on a wheat farm during the '20s. Jesse, a lonely little girl, pines for a pet dog in spite of the same strictures faced by Mary Fehr. Instead she gets a pig, the runt of the litter-shades of Charlotte's Web. However, Jesse's beloved Harold does not face the threat of a sausagey end like poor Wilbur. McCallum draws a wistful Jesse and contented Harold in pencil-crayon colours. Jesse eventually does get a puppy from town, though, after Harold, the new pet seems anti-climactic.
For a delightfully outrageous version of the same story, read Dayal Kaur Khalsa's I Want a Dog (Tundra, 1987). May (named after Tundra's founder, May Cutler) is an urban child in need of a dog substitute, so she uses a roller-skate! Can a little girl learn responsibility and the basics of pet care by trotting around with a roller-skate on a leash? Well, yes-and the roller-skate doesn't bark. Meanwhile, May sets a neighbourhood trend in roller-skate training. Khalsa's two great loves were art and dogs. And she brought them together in a highly original fashion in books mostly based on her childhood in Queens. The cover of I Want a Dog is a canine-filled homage to Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but painted in bold gouache-a naïve rather than pointillist interpretation. And then there is the intriguing picture of May in the classroom, obsessively daydreaming about dogs. Naturally, her classmates and teacher all sport dogs' heads. When May is older, she too gets a dog.but that's another story: Julian (published posthumously by Tundra in 1989). Here, Khalsa changes her palette to brown and green to complement the book's Millbrook, Ontario rural setting, and finds artistic inspiration in Tom Thomson's The West Wind. Her affectionate portrait of a favourite dog reveals another side to Khalsa's art; for this book, she uses a looser, more painterly style-the artist (and subject) unleashed.
When is a book about a dog not a book about a dog? When it's about an elephant! My Dog is an Elephant (Annick, 1994), by the Quebec duo Rémy Simard and Pierre Pratt, recounts Hector's attempts to disguise an elephant on the lam from the zoo as (among other things) a dog. Pratt's brilliant acrylics, which won him the Governor General's Award for Illustration (for the French original, Mon chien est un éléphant (also Annick), fairly leap off the page. They provide the perfect foil for Simard's deadpan delivery, brought to us in English by David Homel. The slapstick ambience includes Hector's mother falling into a dead faint with a loud "Bang!" every time she discovers the elephant. The double-page spread of the elephant-in-a-dog-suit is a memorable lesson in dog training. But will the ersatz dog ever learn to fetch the newspaper sans paperboy?
A Dog Called Dad, written by Frank B. Edwards and illustrated by John Bianchi (Bungalo Books, 1994), displays humour of a different breed: the tall tale. A young boy blithely narrates the story of how his dad is stolen by coyotes, and one day inadvertently returns because his tail (a ponytail) gets caught in the fence. There's pathos, too, in the scene of Dad and the pack howling mournfully at the full moon. And since Bianchi is also a science and nature artist, those craters on the moon and the stars in the sky are probably accurate. His cartoon-style renditions of traumatized chickens and a frolicsome father are hilarious. It's hard to write a really funny book, so this talented team deserves full credit.
The dad-cum-coyote definitely thinks doggy thoughts, but for the last word on the workings of a dog's brain, read Biscuits in the Cupboard (Stoddart Kids, 1997), winner of the Mr. Christie's Book Award. Philippe Béha, a popular Quebec artist, illustrates this poetry collection by the versatile writer Barbara Nichol (author of the extraordinary Dippers). Sporting paw-print endpapers and decorative titles, the book design sets off poems that bare the soul (and sometimes the teeth) of Everydog. The mutt's muse inspires paeans to eating, rolling about, going for a walk, bad behaviour, fleas, names, and dog anatomy. There's even a ghost story, "The Legend of Chicken Bones", which has the chilling refrain: "Cracks and Crackles, Tears and Groans./ Do you hear him? Chicken Bones!"
Though all of these books have considerable strengths, the very best is the universally acclaimed How Smudge Came (Red Deer College Press, 1995), by the storyteller Nan Gregory and the illustrator Ron Lightburn. Like Julian, it is about an adult-dog relationship, but this adult, Cindy, is mentally challenged. From the illustrations one might guess Down Syndrome, but her condition is never made explicit in the spare, immediate text. Cindy discovers a puppy and tries to keep it a secret, but that's not possible in the group home where she lives. She calls the puppy Smudge because that's how a blind client at the hospice where she works perceives him. The puppy is confiscated and sent to the SPCA. Everywhere there are images of enclosure: Cindy being sent to her room; a top-down view of Cindy standing in the reflection of a divided window, the panes forming the shape of a cell; the puppy's cage; Cindy's reflection shut in by the hospice window.Lightburn's coloured pencil drawings on a textured white ground tell the story in perfect partnership with the text, so much so that it's hard to imagine different images for this book. It is a measure of his artistry that his soft, flat, barely-modelled figures carry so much emotional intensity. Cindy's determination to get her puppy back shows her resourcefulness-which for a child protagonist like Jesse or May is a sure sign that permission will eventually be granted. But Cindy is an adult under the supervision of people who know better than she, so she never is allowed to keep Smudge in her room. However, her friends at the hospice retrieve the puppy, and keep him there for her. Thus Smudge gets a good home and Cindy's devotion is rewarded.
Persistence pays off for the dogged, so track down these books and pass them on to friends of all ages. Why should children be the only ones who get to enjoy the adventure, humour, and poetry of a dog-eared picture book?
Annette Goldsmith is a Toronto children's librarian living in Miami and cyberspace, where she edits The Looking Glass: New perspectives on children's books, http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/~easun/looking_glass/.