Jul 8, 2012

Dirty Dogs and Cowboys

If you've already read this post, skip to the end for another featured title, last but not least.

Whether you're dealing with summer drought, flooding rains, or typical seasonal conditions (and where would that be in this strange weather cycle?), if you have a dog, it gets dirty. Just how dirty can vary, but dirty dogs need baths.
Most dogs do not like baths. HARRY THE DIRTY DOG, by Gene Zion, pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, agrees with them. 
There are good reasons why this classic, originally published by Harper Collins in 1956, has been reissued many times and is still in print. It is accessible and appealing for early readers, stands up to repeated reading, and is cute without being cloying.

Most of all, it stars irresistible Harry, the dirty dog.

Harry's personality continues to shine through after half a century. This little pup personifies a protagonist who takes charge of his life, his challenges, and generates his own solutions- while learning from his mistakes.
Here's the plot: Hates baths, hides brush, takes off, gets dirty, goes home, no one recognizes him, digs up brush, gets bathed, happily returns to family life  (and figures out a wiser brush solution).

A simple story, illustrated with lots of white space and  spare lines and color, but each page spills over with action and emotion.

In fact, even though the media and techniques are quite different, Harry reminds me of Daisy, star of A BALL FOR DAISY by Chris Raschka, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Award.

Harry has enough personality to fill several other titles, including HARRY BY THE SEA and

I can't resist contrasting Harry's personality and plot to the storyline, dog, and cowboy in THE DIRTY COWBOY, by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Adam Rex.

This is a cleverly written and illustrated story about a cowboy whose filth level eventually triggers the need for a bath. He instructs his faithful dog to guard his clothes while he bathes in the river, but when he returns for them the dog doesn't recognize him- no trail smells! The ensuing battle for the clothes restores sufficient natural odors to allow recognition, but by then the clothes are ripped to shreds. Boots and hat are his only garb on the trip home.
The intricate language and visual detail combined with the remarkable "fig leaf" artistic strategies to engage and entertain readers of any age. 

For a taste of the lively online debate that raged last spring about this title, search "censor Dirty Cowboy".

  • The plot flips Harry's story on its head: The human wants a bath, takes a bath, then is not recognized by his dog without his surface layer of filth and smells. 
  • The dog, like Harry, is resourceful and determined, but is as ominous as Harry is adorable. 
  • Harry's text is basic and minimal, while Cowboy's text is intricate, colloquial, colorful, and layered with figurative language.
  • Illustrations in these two books are polar opposites with the common trait being humor and heart. 
  • Harry is an "antique", a classic, but could take place in any family today. Cowboy is a twenty-first century publication depicting life long past.

When it comes to the power of picture books to engage readers, stimulate discussion, and entertain, each of these titles stands strong on its own. When combined for purposes of comparing and contrasting, their power increases exponentially.

And I'm willing to bet that once you read them, you'll never forget the characters or their stories. 

I just got my hands on this  mid-June release by Tatyana Feeney, SMALL BUNNY'S BLUE BLANKET. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) For a summary read this Kirkus review. This is not the typical "lost blanket" story, but instead addresses the struggle to recognize a beloved companion when its look, scent, and feel have been washed away.  Small Bunny surely understands the confusion and stress of Harry, Cowboy, and Dog.

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