Patricia MacLachlan is a big name in kid's books. Author of the Newbery winner, Sarah Plain and Tall, a classroom staple, as well as many other novels and picture books, I have reviewed only two of her books. The title of her newest book, The Poet's Dog, hooked me immediately. As did the length of the book. As a librarian at a school where the majority of students are English Language learners who are not reading at grade level, short books like this give them a sense of accomplishment needed to persevere with longer books. As an adult reader, I found The Poet's Dog to be alternately charming and frustrating, not sure what to make of this book. In the end, I decided to read it as a fairy tale and that helped quiet the the questioning voices in my head, allowing me to enjoy MacLachlan's book as I know young readers will.
The Poet's Dog begins with a haiku-like verse, "Dogs speak words/ But only poets/ And children/ Hear." This is the magical premise that sustains the story of Nickel and Flora, siblings lost in a snowstorm who are rescued by Teddy, the dog of the title. Teddy guides the two back to a cabin in the woods belonging to Sylvan, the poet. Slowly, over days, Teddy tells the children about Sylvan, who rescued him from the pound, and the children tell Teddy about the car stuck in the snowbank and their mother leaving to get help. Teddy tells the children about the poetry class held in the cabin and his love of the The Ox-Cart Man, a Caldecott winning picture book written by Pulitzer prize winning poet, Donald Hall, which he hears as a poem. Sylvan becomes ill and Ellie, a student of his, gets him to the doctor and, along with Teddy, becomes heir to his estate when he dies. Teddy refuses to leave the cabin, which is how he is able to rescue the children and keep them safe, but off the grid, until the storm clears.
Like siblings in a fairy tale, Nickel and Flora deal marvelously with the challenges they encounter. They make a fire and tend to it, get wood from the shed and cook with the provisions left in the pantry. Taking the role of cook, Flora explains, "It's not because I'm a girl that I cook. I like it. It's in the herbs. Like science. When I grow up and have twenty-seven cats and dogs and become a horse trainer, I will have a large collection of herbs." Nickel writes in a notebook, sharing his view of life snowed in at the cabin. Teddy says his writing is, "funny, sly, and sometimes poignant. Sylvan taught me the word poignant." Sylvan thinks that poignancy "may be the most important thing in poetry."
And, The Poet's Dog is definitely poignant. Teddy, who, it is revealed, is an Irish Wolfhound, is clearly a reliable caretaker for Nickel and Flora and readers will never worry about their eventual rescue. But, readers will begin to worry about Teddy and what will become of him. Just before Sylvan dies, he tells Teddy that he hopes he will "find a jewel or two." This proves to be a prophetic little mystery that is solved by the (happy) end of the story. So what did I find frustrating about The Poet's Dog? I think I made the mistake of not reading it as a fairy tale from the start, which left me worried and frustrated when I realized that Nickel and Flora's parents must be wild with worry upon realizing they have left the car stuck in the snow bank and that there would be no way they wouldn't be found sooner. I went into this book not realizing that I needed a willing suspension of disbelief, despite the poem at the start! I know that I will return to this book and read it again, maybe even out loud to students. It is magical in the best way, because it's about the magic of words and writing and that, even with a willing suspension of disbelief, is poignant.
One note that I feel bears repeating: I often reading other reviews of books before writing my own, to see what others are thinking and to find a perspective other than my own. I often read the reviews at Kirkus, an industry magazine. In the last year or so, every review (of children's books) makes note of the color of the characters in the book. The review of The Poet's Dog alerted me to the fact that, on the jacket art, the siblings appear to be brown skinned children with black hair while the text describes Nickel as "having blond hair, implying whiteness." Miscue on the part of the artist, Kenard Pak or calculated choice on the part of the art director and editor?
Source: Review Copy