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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Skinny Brown Dog
Skinny Brown Dog
by Kimberly Willis Holt, illustrated by Donald Saaf
Henry Holt,(June 2007)
Whenever a cookie broke, Benny placed the pieces into a box. Once a week he hung a sign in his window: FREE BROKEN COOKIE DAY.
After school, children hurried to the bakery to see if the sign was poted. If it was, they stopped in for a treat. If not, they waved at Benny and headed home. Benny looked forward to FREE BROKEN COOKIE DAY as much as the children.
One afternoon a skinny brown dog wandered into Benny's bakery.
"Sorry, but dogs aren't allowed in my bakery," Benny said as he led the dog outside with a warm piece of pumpernickel bread.
He does look thirsty, Benny thought. So he gave the dog a bowl of fresh water.
--Skinny Brown Dog by Kimberly Willis Holt, illustrated by Donald Saaf, p. 4-6
One day when Benny opens up his bakery, he finds a skinny brown dog waiting for him on the step, obviously hungry and needing a home. The dog follows Benny right into the bakery. Benny knows that a bakery isn't a place for a dog, so, noting how hungry the dog looks, he leads the dog outside with some food. The dog stays around, and each day Benny feeds him, and wonders what it would be like to have the dog come live with him--but he's determined not to let that happen. Still, Benny can't help thinking about the dog left alone at the bakery when he goes home at night. The dog gradually makes his place in the bakery, even getting a name: Brownie. Then one day Benny breaks his leg, and Brownie runs for help. Benny misses him terribly, and when he gets out of the hospital, he takes the dog home with him, happy for his company.
Skinny Brown Dog is a story with heart. It is rich, layered, moving, well-written, and has depth, emotion, strong and likable characters, and good tension. Holt (Part of Me, Keeper of the Night) sets the story up well, showing us Benny's day-to-day existence and the kind of person he is before the skinny brown dog comes into his life. Holt also introduces another key character on the second page of text, so that when she comes up later she's already familiar to readers.
Holt skillfully creates reader empathy for the characters, especially for the skinny brown dog who so clearly needs and longs for a home, and whose tail points to the ground as he watches Benny walk away at night. The story is all the more moving because the characters are likable, especially Benny, and there is such obvious kindness, and a gradual building of friendship and love between Benny and the skinny brown dog. Carefully chosen words add to the feeling of kindness and warmth, such as a warm piece of pumpernickel bread (not just a piece of bread). This is a feel-good story written by a talented writer who really knows her stuff.
Holt uses character actions to show us how kind Benny is, and make the reader care about him; Benny puts broken cookies out every week for the children, and enjoys having them come around, and he repeatedly feeds the hungry dog, is kind to him, and thinks of him. Although Benny's words to the dog seem gruff and determined as he repeatedly says "He's not my dog," it's clear by his actions and thoughts that he cares about the dog more and more as time goes on, and that he's trying to convince himself that he doesn't ("He looked down at the little rug in front of his fireplace. It was big enough for a dog. No, thought Benny, I don't need a dog."). This creates a pleasing effect where the reader can feel that they're in on some knowledge or know something that Benny doesn't allow himself to know at first.
Miss Patterson creates irony and clues for the reader when she keeps noting that Benny's dog is smart and good, Benny repeatedly replies that it's not his dog, and each time Miss Patterson says "Yes, I can see that," subtly showing readers that she, too, can see the bond that is growing. There is also a nice touch of humor when Benny, stuck in the hospital, wants the dog to be allowed to see him, and gets the same response that he initially gave the dog--that the hospital (or bakery) is no place for a dog. In turn, Benny says he doesn't see the harm, and there a great change in his character is evident.
There is great character change and growth throughout the book; Benny moves from not allowing the dog into the bakery, to letting him sleep there, feeding him, missing him, calling him by the name the children come up with, worrying about the dog when he's in the hospital, and eventually adopting the dog and bringing him home, and the dog moves from being skinny, hungry, and homeless, to being well fed, no longer skinny, having a name, having someone he cares about and wants to be with, and having many people who care about him, especially Benny.
One small thing that felt off to me was that the skinny brown dog was not a complete hero, although it seemed that the text was aiming for that; he tried to fetch people to help when Benny broke his leg, and though he did bring Miss Patterson, she was already on her way to the bakery to get her muffin. It would have been a more powerful moment if she hadn't already been going to the bakery.
Holt makes it clear that although the dog is fed and sleeps at the bakery, he does not have a home until he actually gets to live with Benny. Food and a place to sleep are not the same as a home, and this is a good distinction to make. The ending moves quickly and smoothly into Benny bringing Brownie the dog home with him; there are many small and then great hints of Benny's change of heart, closer and closer together, before this happens, and the ending feels right.
Saaf's (Jump Up!, Hello, Hello) mixed-media illustrations, using acrylic, gouache, and watercolor paints and color pencils, are fluidly painted and have a richness to them. Characters are outlined with thin brown lines. There is a lot of scrumbling over top the illustrations with a layer of white, creating a sense of light as well as a consistency between the illustrations, though at times I found this distracting, as the white sometimes seems to just sit on top of the illustrations. Texture is created in the furry animals, at least in their faces, where tiny brush strokes show through. The illustrations have a slightly hazy appearance through their soft lines, multiple blended colors, and brush strokes. Depending on how you look at it, the art can either be appealing or unappealing; I found it to be both.
The illustrations feature animals for all the characters. This feels incongruent and, at least for me, does not match the text. (Why would a baker who has fur himself object to a dog being in a bakery?). I found it jarring to have every character be an animal, and have all the animals talk, wear clothes, and act like humans except for the dog, as if the dog is some lower animal. The dog does wear clothes, but doesn't talk and is treated as a dog would be, with a place by the rug and a box to sleep in.
The illustrations are borderless, some bleeding right to the edges of the page, others with soft edges, or with the illustration placed like a cutout with no background at all. There is a nice gradation of color, with complimentary or contrasting hues blended together to add depth and shading. A metaphorical image appears in several illustrations; a dotted white outline of the dog appears on the empty spot on the rug where Benny tries not to look. This makes it clear for any reader exactly who Benny is missing.
There is a bonus introductory illustration of the skinny brown dog walking down the sidewalk, his tail up, and another wordless illustration to close the book, adding an extra beta that helps the ending feel right. Observant readers will enjoy spotting the dog hiding behind a garbage pail as Benny arrives at work, and the various animals that appear, including an insect driving a tiny milk van.
Skinny Brown Dog is a warm-hearted, feel-good treat--it's beautifully written, with love and kindness woven throughout the story that will pluck at your heart strings. If you want a book that reminds you that there is kindness in the world, and a homeless dog can find love and a family, get this book. Highly recommended.
-Added May 2007
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