What We're Reading: Adventures in Children's Books

Animal Fantasies

William Steig. Dominic. Farrrar Straus Giroux, 1972

Avi. Poppy. Harcourct Brace, 1995

Cynthia Rylant. Gooseberry Park. Orchard, 1995

Lately, a large proportion of our bedtime readaloud books have been animal fantasies. It seems to be a particularly rich genre for early novels, and it has turned out to be a genre that appeals to all of us ("Us" being me, my wife and our two boys, ages 6 and 9). In all of these books, the animals have some human traits (they talk, they form friendships, and sometimes they wear clothing), but they retain a good proportion of their animal characteristics as well (they sometimes tend to eat one another, for one thing).
The book that got us started was Dominic, by William Steig. Dominic is one of my all-time favourite books, and lends itself very well to reading aloud. The action starts in the very first chapter-- always nice in a read-aloud-- and if you are the kind of reader who likes to "do voices" for the different characters, there is plenty of scope for amateur theatricals here: from the Alligator Witch, to the 100-year-old pig, Bartholomew Badger, to Phineas Matterhorn, the sleepwalking goat.

The plot is simple. Dominic is a dog who sets out in search of adventure and interesting smells. Naturally, he finds plenty of both. As he travels, he encouters villans, rescues their victims, makes friends, and leaves them behind. Dominic is a gentle junior version of the old-fashioned picaresque novel. Sort of like Tom Jones without the sex or the long anti-Jacobite tirades.

There is a freshness and optimism to the book that appeals to adults and children alike, and-- since Dominic constantly extolls the joys of travel-- it was a great book to take on a holiday that involved long car trips. In fact, one day, instead of bickering with each other, The Boys in the Back Seat started speculating about whether they had spotted more different license plates on this trip than Dominic would have spotted on his travels (since there are no cars in Dominic, they didn't really come to any useful conclusion).

Next came Poppy by Avi. At first, I was afraid this book was not going to be a hit. Both of my boys were extremely distressed when the male mouse Ragweed is eaten in the very first chapter. Ragweed is an appealing character, and his death does come as a shock; my boys, though, were upset not so much by the death as by the realization that we are going to spend the rest of the book with a Girl Hero!

I put the book aside for a week or two, and when I picked it up again we were all able to root for Poppy in her struggle against the tyrannical owl, Mr. Ocax. Poppy is not only a good adventure story, but also a compelling portrait of a dictator and the creatures he bullies into obedience.

But no discussion of Poppy can be complete without mentioning the porcupine, Erethizon Dorsatum (Ereth for short), an absolutely marvellous comic creation, a veritable W.C. Fields of the forest, and a character that I would love to see return in a long series of adventures. Unfortunately, Avi is probably too original a writer to succumb to the temptation of the series book.

Most recently, we have been reading Gooseberry Park, Cynthia Rylant's animal adventure featuring the most unlikely group of animal friends that I have run across in a while: a squirrel, a dog, a bat, and a hermit crab.

This story is more urban, and more domestic than the previous two books; Stumpy the squirrel lives in a comfortable city park until an ice storm destroys the tree she and her new babies live in. Her dog friend, Kona must rescue her and her children with the help of scatterbrained Murray the bat, and the advice of Gwendolyn, the sage old Hermit Crab. (Kona and Gwendolyn are pets belonging to Professor Albert, a token human who can be counted on to fall asleep whenever the animals need to spring into action. I could really identify with Professor Albert. He really only has that one skill, but he does it so well.)

Cynthia Rylant, as usual, is masterful at portraying her characters' feelings of love and friendship. This simple story has a real emotional resonance.

--David K. Brown

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Monday, September 30, 1996
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