How to Be a Dog

After such serious and intense writing for the past couple of days, I wanted something a little lighter and sillier to write about.  First I thought about A Castle Full of Cats, but I’ve already done that.  But then I was tidying away the day’s books, and came across one my daughter plucked from the shelves of the Harvard Book Store, How to Be a Dog, written and illustrated by Jo Williamson.  (I am not referring to A Guide to Being a Dog, by Seamus Wheaton, which, yes, I also have.  Apparently the Changeling and I really want a dog.)

How To Be a Dog

This was an interesting find.  It’s a debut book from Jo Williamson, and I consider it absolutely unfair that her first book is so charming and pitched so perfectly, and also I’m now very curious to see everything else she does.  But how did I find it when I’d never heard anything about it before?  Well, my daughter, animal-magnet that she is, ran into the children’s book section, paused, veered to the right, and snatched it from where it was inconspicuously shelved and said, “Let’s bring this book home!”  I swear to God she knew.  I swear she was sniffing when she paused there, that she muttered under her breath: “Dogs.  Today I want dogs.”  And she sniffed out “dogs,” and found the doggiest book she could.  Animal magnet.  This is a kid who once located a pit bull in a closed store and basically befriended the dog, who was wagging her tail enthusiastically, until the owner had to open the door to allow them a brief moment to say hello before we apologized and dragged her away.  It’s a little uncanny, but I’m hopeful her skill will one day get us a dog (don’t tell my husband I said that).

Anyway, the point is that it was love at first sniff, which is more or less how the story starts, with the dog narrator relating how dogs find their humans: they just know who’s right for them and make a beeline for their human.  Then they have to get used to living together.  The narrator goes through a list of tips or guidelines for how to live in your new home: finding your favourite place to sleep; greeting visitors; how not to, ahem, sully the floor; cleaning the floor of any delicious debris.  It ends by promising that even if there are occasional sad moments (such as bath time), dogs just want to be with their best friend, and will be very happy in their new homes with their special human: “Just like me,” says the narrator, and if you don’t break into a smile at that final page then I think that’s cause for medical concern.

Here’s the thing: this is a perfect book for dog-lovers.  I don’t have to justify this book to them– they’ve probably already ordered it as of the first paragraph.  I don’t even have a dog, and I love it, because I know dogs and I love them.  It’s also ammunition for me in communicating to my husband that my daughter clearly needs a dog because she chose the book, right?  Right.  But I’m really curious about how it plays with people who aren’t dog-lovers, whether they’re like my husband (who enjoys dogs but doesn’t need them), or my father (who’s really bizarre and seems to actually dislike them).  My husband does like this book, but I’d like to try it out on my father.  My suspicion is that it would at least garner a chuckle, but I have no evidence to back that up.

Why do I think such a dog-oriented book isn’t just for dog-lovers?  It’s got such perfect timing for its little jokes.  The text is straightforward, for example: “Your human will want you to be toilet trained… Mine was very glad when I got the hang of it.”  (Of course you can expect kids to giggle over that.)  This is all true, of course.  A human would absolutely desire a dog to cease and desist from leaving puddles on the floor.  And the first page indicates this clearly:

Not yet toilet trained

Notice what’s going on there?  It’s the illustration you need to read, right?  Hence why I snapped a couple of pictures, unlike usual: you’ve got to see the book to get the text here.  Jo Williamson’s pencil and watercolour images fill the blanks left by the text.  The text gives you the dog’s point of view; the illustrations show you what’s happening, and your reaction provides the human’s perspective.

Let’s look at the next page:

Toilet trained

Oh, whoops!  Not so typical, eh?  The timing is just right, and has a slightly retro, old-New Yorker feel to it.  The vintage feel is bolstered by the art: the very light, bold touch of the pencils sketching the form, and filled in largely by grey watercolours, highlighted by occasional blue and red details.  Of course, there’s also the old-fashioned toilet which I truly and dearly adore, and then the dog reading a physical newspaper.  Note also boy’s clothing: there’s something of the British schoolboy about him, again a little touch which brings seriousness and humour into relief.

There’s nothing about this book which is inherently funny.  It is told straight, it is illustrated straight.  It doesn’t “make jokes” at you.  It’s Costello, in Abbott and Costello.  You’re Abbott, reading it.  You make it funny, by stumbling from page to page, doing a double-take, then chuckling at what you see.  There’s a sort of dry, twinkle-in-the-eye humour here which I think anyone, dog-lover or not, will love.  I’d also venture to guess that any dog-lover, child or adult, would also love this (if you’re not already a dog-lover, you may need a child to introduce you to the book, though).  There are definitely jokes you need to be of a certain age to get, but pretty much any age should be able to enjoy this, thanks to those lovely, vintage-feel, vivid illustrations.  Oh, just scroll up and look at the pictures, then show them to the nearest child.  They’re an immediate attraction, and I frankly can’t wait to see what Jo Williamson does next.

I’d like to thank my daughter’s sixth sense for pulling this book off the shelf.  It’s been a joy getting to know a book and an author really new to me, and it’s been even more fun making my husband nervous as my daughter and I coo over every dog.  (Can we get a dog?)

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