Monday, October 29, 2012

2. Black Dog

Story & pictures by Levi Pinfold
Templar, 2012
$15.99, ages 4-7, 32 pages.

When a stray dog shows up outside, a family panics and assumes the worst: The dog is big and black, so he must be after them.

Soon the family's fear of the dog has become so overblown that the dog has ballooned to size of their house.

So why then is the smallest member of the family running outside to play with him?

In this quirky picture book, family members feed off each other's fear of a stray -- until the youngest member shows them all how ridiculous they're being.

Author-illustrator Levi Pinfold shows how fear is learned (by watching others act afraid), and how it can also be unlearned (if someone has the gumption to face it).

When Mr. Hope wakes up one winter day, he sees a black dog sitting outside the first floor of his house and gasps. At the very same instant, he drops his toast and scrambles to the phone to call the police.

In a frenzy he tells a policeman that there's a dog the size of a tiger outside and asks what he should do. The policeman seems to snicker to himself, then dismissively replies, "Don't go outside."

Oblivious to how docile the dog really looks, Mr. Hope scoops up his youngest daughter Small and hurries upstairs to get farther away from it. (As if this would truly make him safer.)

By the next spread, Mr. Hope's fear has begun to spread through the family and skew what each of the next three members see when they look at the dog.

As his wife and two oldest children look out a window from a higher story of their house, their fear grows and so does the dog. Like a bugaboo, an object of exaggerated fear, he becomes magnified by their imagination.

Elongated color paintings on one side of a spread show the dog blowing up like a Macy's day balloon  -- at one point he's so big readers see a big curious eye looking through an upper floor bathroom window.

For emphasis, Pinfold zooms in on each family member's reaction with small sepia toned images that are set among the text. One small square shows a silhouette of a family member looking out the window, while another shows the scale of the dog relative to the house.

Soon this big goofball of a dog is three stories tall and all four family members are huddled under a blanket to save themselves. But where is Small?

Small, the tiniest of them all, has managed to wiggle out from her father's arm and go back to playing. Coloring away, she hadn't noticed that anything was wrong. But now that her family is all bunched together, she realizes something is up and asks what's going on.

Ironically, the four of them are so caught up in their neuroses that they don't think to pull her close and protect her too. Instead they whisper all at once, "We're hiding!"

Small thinks this is the funniest thing she's ever seen and standing astride in her striped long johns, replies, "Oh, you are such sillies." Then she slips on her yellow hooded jacket and opens the front door to see what all the fuss is about.

As she steps outside, her family screams in horror. "The hound will eat you up!," "It'll munch your head," "It'll crunch your bones." Indeed the dog has become quite gigantic from all their fear -- even now as he greets Small, down on all fours with his head tucked low.

Though Small is brave, she must wonder if anything they say is true. Indeed, she looks much less confident than she feels. Next to the dog, Small is as tiny as a candy corn.

Still, Small doesn't hold back. In fact she walks so close to the dog that her feet end up where his fur drapes the ground.

"All right, then," she says, determined to judge the dog for herself. "If you're going to eat me, you'll have to catch me first." Then Small takes off across the snowy hillside as the dog galumphs after her.

Along the way, Small sings a song that convinces her more and more that the dog's really no threat at all.

She tempts the dog across a pond and as he squishes his body under a bridge, she sings aloud that his paws are thick, the ice is thin and as a result, he just might fall in. But he doesn't because he's now just a little bit smaller. 

Everywhere they go, Small challenges the dog to be smaller and his body shrinks a bit more. By the time they've run through a playground and back home, the stray's small enough to fit through a cat flap in the front door of her house.

But how does Small know that the dog won't balloon back into a ferocious beast once he's inside? Especially if that's the way her family perceives him?

In this extraordinary, imaginative book, Pinfold shows how fear can feed on itself and distort what's real -- sometimes to ridiculous proportions.

The more the oldest family members worry about the dog, the more irrational their fear becomes and the bigger the dog seems.

The mother thinks he's the size of an elephant, the older daughter Adeline thinks he's as big as tyrannosaurus and by the time the son Maurice sees the dog, the analogies are so overblown, they're silly. Maurice screams that the dog is the size of a Big Jeffy. No one but Maurice know what that means, but readers might remember Big Jeffy from Sesame Street as the shaggy bearded bass player from a monster band.

Pinfold's illustrations are packed with hysterical details. As family members become unhinged, they lose their grip on something in their hands. The father drops toast, the mother, a mug of tea, and so on. Later, they don strainers and pans for helmets and barricade themselves in the living room so the dog can't get to them.

The same hysteria is played out in miniature with the children's toys.

On the floor and chairs, little plastic soldiers, kings and cowboys raise their arms in a show panic. Many seem to be reacting to a green octopus toy, which like the stray dog is bigger than them yet also quite docile-looking (though none of them seem to notice that).

However, some of the plastic toys aren't even looking in the direction of the octopus and seem to be reacting more to the hysteria of the other toys.

Then as if to mirror the growth of the dog, Pinfold moves the octopus from standing on a chair cushion to hanging from a string from the ceiling.

By the time the Hope family has calmed down and reconsidered their fears, so have the plastic toys. At the end of the book in a lamp-lit corner of the house, the octopus joins several other toys on the floor around a pot of tea.

Another clever moment in the book occurs when Small leads the dog into playground of metal elephants and down a trunk that forms a tube slide. Readers will remember that the older sister compared the dog to an elephant. But now the dog is not only much smaller than an elephant, he's also small enough to fit in its trunk. Ha! Take that, you silly.

I loved that Pinfold plays off the black dog bias, conjecture that dark-furred dogs (and cats) are less apt to be adopted at animal shelters, in part because they look more aggressive or dangerous.

This is the kind of book that's so clever and funny and whimsical that you can't imagine anyone not loving it -- or big black dogs.

No comments:

Post a Comment