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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Peter Brown
Little, Brown,(September 6, 2006)
Chowder had always been different.
His owners liked to think of him as quirky, but most people thought he was just plain weird.
Most dogs thought he was weird, too.
Chowder wanted to be part of the neighborhood dog pack, but the more he tried to fit in, the more he stuck out.
It wasn't easy being Chowder.
Chowder's only real friends were his owners, Madge and Bernie Wubbington. They didn't just like their bulldog, they were downright crazy about him.
--Chowder, Peter Brown, p. 1-4.
Chowder is different—very different from other dogs. He does things his own way, more like a human than a dog. He likes to read newspapers, sniff flowers, work on the computer, listen to music, and go to the bathroom sitting on the toilet. Other dogs don't understand him, and neither do people, except his two beloved owners. Chowder is desperate to find a place where he fits in, so he gets his owners to take him to a petting zoo attached to a huge supermarket—and there, he spots some animals playing ball. When he tries to join in, the ball snags in the top of a tall tree, and then his owners find him and take him into the store. Chowder manages to escape and to free the ball, and in doing so, makes a whole new set of friends.
The text works like a comic foil—its serious prose is the perfect set up for the laugh-out-loud illustrations. For example, where we read that Chowder has always been different, we see Chowder, a large bulldog, sitting on the toilet as a human would; where we read that Chowder tried to fit in, we see him arranging bones in the shape of a dinosaur as an archeologist would, while other dogs look on in astonishment. The text also works well to garner sympathy for isolated Chowder, and to help readers care as he attempts to find friends.
The text is paired well with the illustrations, especially in the opening spreads, where the comic timing works perfectly. Near the end of the book, the text gets a little wordy for my taste, slowing down the story and including details that feel unnecessary, and some of the humor is drained from the book—yet the story remains interesting. Humor is infused back into the story in the last three pages through the illustrations that again use the text as a comic foil.
Brown's distinct acrylic-and-pencil illustrations are modern and 3-D-ish; they look almost computer animated, with not much detail, and smooth, textureless surfaces. Through the illustrations, we are given so much more of the story than the text alone tells us--the incredible things Chowder can do that cause others to think he's quirky, how his owners treat him like their child, This builds on Chowder's character, and makes him come more alive. The illustrations bring the real humor.
Bright, almost neon shades of yellow and green appear in most illustrations, along with brown (Chowder, trucks, buildings, etc.), creating a visual echo throughout the book. There is a lot of white space in many of the illustrations; often the characters and what they are doing stand out in stark contrast to the blankness around them. Chowder doesn't seem to have a lot of expression on his face. While the text helps us understand his motivations, it would be more helpful if the illustrations also echoed that.
Anyone who's ever felt different can identify with Chowder—and realize, along with him, that you can find like-minded friends and a place where you fit in; it just takes time. This is a funny, touching book. Recommended.
-Added January 2007
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