Patricia MacLachlan wrote the wonderful, Newbery award winning book, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Sarah is her most successful and most read novel. The books for children that she has written since Sarah, aside from the sequels to that novel, have mostly been innovative and different and even quirky, but just not as accessible and not as captivating as Sarah.
The Poet’s Dog follows in this same vein, interesting but not exactly an instant classic or even a best seller. The story is about a talking dog, an Irish wolfhound, who rescues two children who are stranded in a snowstorm. I don’t quite understand why the children decide to leave the car where their mother left them when she went to look for help. They say, “People came and knocked on the car windows, telling us the car was going to be towed off the road before it got covered with snow.” So the children left the car in a blizzard? Why would people knock on the car windows and then leave two children there in the snow? Why would the children not wait for the tow truck to help them get to somewhere safe? Or wait for their mother to come back? Nicholas is twelve years old, old enough to know better than to go off with his little sister into a blizzard.
That bit of illogic aside, the dog is sweet. He used to belong to a poet named Sylvan who lived in a cabin in the woods, low technology and high on the poetic, free spirit, Wendell Berry kind of a life. But Sylvan is gone, and the dog, Teddy, lives alone in the cabin until he finds the two children. Teddy can talk, but the only people who can hear him are poets and children. Nice touch.
I also liked the references to picture books and the recognition that many good picture book texts are also poems. Specifically, Sylvan says that Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall is one of his favorite poems. Other poetic picture books: Summer Is . . . by Charlotte Zolotow (almost anything by Charlotte Zolotow), Wake Up, City by Alvin Tresselt, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, Umbrella by Taro Yashima, A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans. Actually, most of the picture books that are more about the language, and the rhythm of reading the book aloud, and the word pictures than they are about plot and characters are really little illustrated poems. That’s not an original thought with me or with Ms. MacLachlan, but it was a nice thought to be reminded of.
In the end, though, this book had several “nice touches” but not much substance. I can’t see it being popular with dog lovers, in spite of Teddy’s cuteness, or beginning readers, in spite of the large, sparse text and abbreviated length (88 pages), or poetry fans, in spite of the poetry connection. Maybe eight to ten year old poetry fans who like short books with talking animals? How many of those are out there?