Top dogs: the eyes have it…

The 26th August is International Dog Day.  Here is a look at two favourite picture books which share my personal Top Dog prize.

  • Lily takes a walk, by Satoshi Kitamura (first published in 1987)
  • Sam and Dave dig a hole, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (2014)

In Kitamura’s classic picture book, Lily takes a walk, oblivious to the lurking horrors that her dog, Nicky, can see.  Nicky’s expression moves through curiosity, surprise, worry, fright, terror and panic.  How does Kitamura give us such complexity through such simple drawings?








On one reading, this is a straightforward example of hooking in the reader, who is aware, like Nicky, of things that Lily doesn’t see.  But perhaps there are no monsters, and what we see are the imaginings of an over-anxious and sensitive dog.  Or perhaps the horrors are, in fact, the way a dog may conceptualise the real-life perils that lay in wait for Lily along the way.  Surely Lily is too young to be navigating the urban jungle, with all its potential dangers, walking ‘for hours and hours until the sun starts to set behind the hill’, with just a small dog for protection?  And Lily’s father in the final spread: does his face look… odd?… or familiar?  Is he simply enjoying Lily’s animated description of her adventures?  Is he one of the horrors?  Or does his similarity to the tomato juice advert billboard face suggest that his protective presence may have been around all along?  Has he been tailing her to check on her safety while encouraging her growing autonomy and independence (as my own father used to do when we were young)?


Sam and Dave’s dog isn’t given a name.  Klassen draws the dog’s expression with even more economy than Kitamura employs: it’s all in the eyes and the tilt of the head.  The results are just as telling – and equally full of possibility.


Sam and Dave dig and dig, repeatedly taking the wrong turn.  Is the dog astounded, frustrated, bewildered?  Our heroes are on a mission to find something spectacular.  They dig and dig, have some snacks, dig some more, take a nap.  Eventually, the three tumble out of the hole into a place very similar to where they started – but subtly different.  Perhaps, when Sam and Dave took a nap in the hole, one or both of them ended up in a dream world.  Or have they dug all the way to the other side of the world?  (As a child, I was often to be found in the back garden digging my way to Australia.  Lots of children did, back then.  I wonder whether they still do.)  Or perhaps the differences reflect Heroclitis’s adage that we can never step in the same river twice.  After all their adventuring, Sam and Dave are changed, and the world has moved on, too.  One interpretation casts the dog as a Christ figure, trying to signal the right path to Sam and Dave, but ultimately allowing them free will to make their own mistakes.  After ‘The Fall’ (significant?), “well,” they say, “That was pretty spectacular.”  All the effort they put in resulted in an experience as fantastic as any material treasure.  How much do the boys realise?  How much are they ready to acknowledge?  Many interpretations are possible.

There’s an interview with the Mac and Jon on Good Reads With Ronna here, and they talk about how closely they collaborated while writing this book.  “We’d open up an audio link between our computers every day and just talk about the book. And Jon would be making sketches and send them over to me and then we would talk about those. And sometimes he would create something that was so good that I would have to rewrite the text to support the illustration…”.  There are more interviews with Jon and Mac, both together and individually, on The Art of the Picture Book, a beautiful website with lots of interviews, and well worth checking out – especially today for their collection of Dog Books.




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