I’ve known ever since I started writing here that I really, really wanted to talk about Peter Sís. The only question was where to start? Which book? I pulled them all off the shelf and pondered the feast before me. Ice Cream Summer makes me giddy just to look at it, and that’s the latest, too, so it has that going for it. Starry Messenger was one of the early ones, the art is extraordinary, and it’s positively inspirational. I think the first one of his I saw was The Pilot and the Little Prince, and that remains a favourite. I finally picked up the most battered, though: the one which has been hugged, read by every person in this house over and over, which has dried tears and elicited giggles out of the depths of sadness and exhaustion (both the toddler’s and the adults’!), which has been lost and found more times than I can count, and gotten tangled in bedclothes bedtime after bedtime. In other words, this book has gotten accolades higher than the Pulitzer, Booker, Newbery, Caldecott, and Nobel Prize for Literature combined: Madlenka’s Dog, written and illustrated by Peter Sís, has won love.
The Changeling and I found this book at our natural home in Boston, the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. It turns out that the owner is friendly with Peter Sís (he did all the lovely artwork for their website, and for a poster for the store), and she definitely shared her excitement about his work with us: almost all of our Sís books have come from there. I’m pretty sure this is one of the books which the Changeling had to carry with her out of the store, into the car, and hold the whole way home. I don’t mind: it means she’s less likely to get carsick. (Odd, isn’t it? If I read in the car: beware, beware! If she has a book, it’s all clear. Maybe it’s because she can’t read yet?) Please forgive that ever so slightly tasteless digression; the point is that Madlenka’s Dog was instantly engrossing.
What’s interesting is that, in many ways, this is the simplest of books: a girl named Madlenka wants a dog. That’s it, really. So what makes it so engrossing?
Well, for one thing, whether or not you specifically want a dog (maybe you want a cat, or a particularly beautiful book, or your own house, or just someone to love…) who among us doesn’t want something? Maybe, speaking to adults who shuffle their feet and mumble, “It’s not so bad, really, I mean, I’d like a dog one day, but I can cope,” a better word to use is “longing.” I’m sure there’s something you long for– and so does Madlenka, and so does your child, if you have one. This isn’t What Pet Should I Get? (not meant critically– the Changeling enjoys that book, too), which is about the excitement of choosing an animal. No, this is an exploration of the universal longing for that one thing you love deep in your gut.
Let’s start with that word “universal.” Both my husband I were particularly hooked by the opening to this book: “In the universe, on a planet…” That’s right: this book about a girl who wants a dog starts by a little meditation on the cosmos. (Honestly, that’s the only reason I feel justified in plunging into the serious analytics here; Peter Sís totally started it, dude, OK?) Before bringing us specifically to the girl named Madlenka, we start with the most general of the general. Even when we do meet Madlenka, she takes us on a walk around her block inspiring everyone she meets to remember their own childhood dog. Once she meets her friend, Cleopatra, who has a similar longing for a horse, they plunge into a dreamworld with their imaginary pets, until called back to reality: “Madlenka! Come home…” And all of the dogs of her walk’s dreaming go with her. In short: while Madlenka is our emotional link here, she’s really a window onto the whole universe’s love and longing. I smile, even laugh, when I read this with the Changeling, but I never put it down without feeling a little wistful: “It’s true, I really do love…” And then I give my Changeling an extra-big hug while she says, “And I think I want a cat first, and then we’ll have a dog. Do you want a bird?” “Yes,” I say, “but I love you best.”
I think you’ve gotten the general impression of the Changeling’s review already, but how does she engage with Madlenka’s Dog? I mean, apart from dragging it off the shelf, “reading” it to the cat, and pulling it up onto my lap? Well, she knows it at least half by heart, and, when we’re curled up reading it, even if she’s half-asleep she’ll know when it’s time to jump up and open the flaps to find the dogs. As she opens the flaps she’ll tell stories about the dogs, and name them. (They’re all named Remy, except for the black and white one who “looks sort of like Penny,” our cat.) She asks all about the huge two-page spread pictures showing Madlenka and Cleopatra playing together: “Are they in Egypt? Are those the sca-rab bee-tuls? Scarab beetles, yes! And let’s find the rabbits on the next page…” But the part that always makes my heart throb a little is the softening in her voice at the last page when she sees Madlenka at the door and says: “Look, all the dogs came with her…”
This is a beautiful book, and I’ve stopped trying to protect it too much. The Changeling is generally gentle with books, but toddler-love still leaves its marks, and maybe one day we’ll need a second copy. I don’t mind. I think Madlenka would be flattered that the Changeling, and her parents, share her dreams.