This is an odd book and I'm not even sure how to describe it, beyond being another handsome, if slim, hardback from First Second Books.
I presume that it's a book for children in which a young boy, Mickey Spitz, comes to terms with the loss of his parents and adjusts to life with his aunt and uncle, with whom he has nothing in common. It's also a book about tolerance, as Mickey is not like the other children at school but his teachers and peers do come to realise that what makes him different is just another talent.
However, I get the feeling that kids are going to read this at a young age, adore the heck out of it; copy Mickey for a while, until their parents want to strangle author Arthur Yorinks; then eventually grow up, re-discover the book decades later, re-read it for old times sakes and be utterly horrified.
Let me attempt to explain.
Somewhat appropriately, we're in that strange moral era known as the American 1950s, though towards the end, given that Barbara, Mickey's mother, sings along to her record of 'South Pacific'. Barbara seems to be a loving mother, just as her husband Barney appears to be a loving father and the pair of them dote on each of their children. The catch is that only one of them is human; all Mickey's 'brothers and sisters', as he knows them, are bloodhounds, which Barney and Barbara breed.
He bathes with the dogs, he runs with the dogs and he learns how to use his sense of smell like the dogs. I looked up the collective noun for bloodhounds, which is a sute, so I can now suggest that Mickey is less a human child and more the only dog in the sute who can stand up and conduct a conversation. As you can imagine, even back in the fifties, this marks him to everyone at school as 'different'.
The turning point appears to be when Barbara discovers that Anthony Crawford, Mickey's principal, is a dog person and he decides to demonstrate Mickey's amazing nose at a school assembly. Unfortunately, the real turning point is right after that assembly, when the news arrives that Barney and Barbara have been killed in a car accident and Mickey's going to have to live with Uncle Irv and Aunt Jou Jou, who, drum roll please, hate kids and hate dogs. Mickey, therefore, having already lost his parents, is torn away from his brothers and sisters to live in what must seem like an alien world.
You can see the cute here, right? There's definitely cute here and Yorinks does make a few points rather well. I liked how Mrs. Tocci, Mickey's teacher, retains one line throughout her stay in the book that changes rather greatly in meaning over time. 'He smelled my fish,' she says of Mickey, initially horror-stricken but eventually proudly, as she finally acknowledges his talent in noticing that her fish was off and claims that he saved her life.
Perhaps I'm digging too deeply into a work for children yet again, but I just couldn't help but look at this from the perspective of Mickey's parents, namely that they're insane. They don't treat their only son like a son, because they seem to be unable to see him as a human being. The very first page involves Mickey as a newborn placed into the hollow of a tree, so that one of their bloodhounds can track him down as a demonstration for the police force. That this dog is named Minnie ably highlights the equal value that she and Mickey hold for their parents.
We often see comparisons drawn between today and the 'golden era' of the fifties, that decade which so many Americans, especially conservatives, often cite as a moral time worthy of emulation. Of course, the fifties would have looked down on Barbara Spitz being a partner in a business rather than merely looking after her family at home, but hey, let's just look at that family: seven or eight bloodhounds, depending if we count the human one. Today, he'd be taken away from them by Child Protective Services. Back then, I have no idea. Appearances were as important as family values, so maybe they'd have done the same thing. Certainly, I can't see any era of America looking at this as remotely healthy for the child.
Now, if this had been phrased without such an attention on realism, with Mickey going through grief and re-adjustment trauma, not to mention an uphill struggle to find common ground with his new guardians, then I might not have seen this as such an issue. Phrase it as a fable and we're covered. Once upon a time, there was a boy who lost his parents and grew up with a family of dogs until he was found by a kindly old couple who were unable to have children of their own. No problem there. All the same messages could have been sent and we'd have received them loud and clear. But for Yorinks to have Mickey raised by Americans back in the moral age of the fifties, especially ones working closely with the authorities, without any apparent idea of what it means to bring up a child and it feels seven shades of wrong.
Outside that really bizarre sticking point, the only problem I had with the book was its ending, which felt a little easy and quick to me. It's the right ending, but it shouldn't have come that quickly or without far more effort and re-adjustment on everyone's part.
The art, by the husband and wife team of Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline, is simple in style but effective in reach. They don't need a lot of brush strokes to get Yorinks's message across and they're perhaps even better at showing the emotions in dogs than in people. Colours are heavily restricted; each page is allotted a single colour to serve as depth, though that oddly varies from page to page.
As always, given that this is a First Second book, I find that I have to compliment the publishers yet again. It's becoming a mantra from me, but this feels as right as always. It's a small hardback, both in size and in length. It's only a little larger than a trade paperback and the page count only passes a hundred because of a few interesting pages after the story to highlight to kids how the book was constructed. One day, I'm going to read a First Second book with horrendous design but that may well be the day the world ends. ~~ Hal C F Astell