Children’s Book Reviews: Spotlight on Animal Friends

By Cyrisse Jaffee

Children’s picture books about dogs and cats are plentiful, but a few new entries in the genre stand out.

Doug Salati, Hot Dog. Knopf, 2022

Jacqueline R. Rayner, Lost Cat! Clarion Books, 2023

Randall de Seve and Carson Ellis. This Story Is Not About a Kitten. Random House Studio, 2022

Henry Cole, Forever Home. Scholastic Press, 2022

Doug Salati’s Hot Dog is the winner of the 2023 Caldecott Medal, a prestigious award given each year to the “most distinguished picture book for children published in the United States.” It’s a steamy hot day in the city and poor Dog, a dachshund, has had enough. The concrete burns his feet and the crowds are “too close! too loud! too much!” His human (an older lady with big blue eyeglasses) hails a taxi and after they have ridden on a train and a boat, they are finally at the ocean. The cool, salty breezes and the unending sand are the perfect antidote as Dog and his human frolic and relax. The exuberant pencil and gouache illustrations, bright with color and action, capture the hustle and bustle of the city, Dog’s delight at the seashore, and the sleepy ride home. The text is simple and lets the pictures tell the story, perfect for any time of the year.

If you’ve ever wondered where your cat wanders, this book is for you. Fred likes “butterflies, naps and cuddles/but mostly Fred likes food.” So in Jacqueline K. Rayner’s Lost Cat!, when he doesn’t come home one night for dinner, Fred’s human (a little girl) sets off to find him. She is worried that he is lost and alone, but Fred is actually on a fantastical adventure — driving a car, hanging onto an airplane, relaxing at the beach, visiting sights around the world. He is even beamed up to outer space! Luckily, when the aliens see the girl’s “Lost Cat” poster, they kindly return Fred back home “just in time for … dinner.” Kids will love spotting Fred on each page and rejoice to see him reunited with his sweet little girl. The illustrations, done mostly in black, white, and red, are a mixture of child-like drawings and painterly scenes. There’s just enough text, and several wordless spreads allow for children to make up their own narrative.

In the cumulative story This Story is Not About a Kitten by Randall de Seve and illustrated by Carson Ellis, a kitten, “hungry and dirty/scared and alone/meowing sadly/needing a home,” manages to bring a community together. First a dog hears the kitten. Then the “dog’s people” — a woman and a child — investigate under the car where the cat in hiding. Two men from a moving van bring a box, then a man drinking tea brings some milk, and so on. Eventually the cat is rescued and finds a new home, where all the people who helped — of diverse ages and ethnicities — gather to celebrate. “This story,” the author says, is about “the stopping/and listening/the holding/and bringing/the offering/and asking/ and working together. Inspired by a cat rescue in de Seve’s Brooklyn neighborhood (and the real-life rescued cat named Amber), this is a lovely story with an important message. The gouache illustrations, featuring a very adorable kitten, match the mood and setting of the story perfectly. The enticing title and the satisfying ending will elicit lots of discussion and reflection — great for groups of kids as well as one-on-one reading.

forever home, a wordless picture book by Henry Cole, also features an animal in need of a home. It’s a dog this time, and he is found by a little boy who desperately wants a pet. First, the boy must demonstrate that he is responsible enough to take care of a dog. He must keep his room tidy and “walk” an empty leash for practice. When he finds a stray dog living in a box, his two dads (one black, one white) agree that he’s ready. There’s a moment of drama when they discover the dog has been taken to an animal shelter, but the boy and his dog are luckily reunited. It’s a dream come true — for all of them. Told entirely in black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings (except for the dog’s leash, which is red), this is a heartwarming and timeless story that will resonate with children. The gentrified urban setting is beautifully rendered and nicely detailed, with signs and posters helping to tell the story. Subtitled “a dog and boy love story,” it is simultaneously the story of a loving two-dad family who have made a home for a boy, and the story of a boy who finds a dog to love. An author’s note explains the inspiration for the story as well as a plea to “adopt if you can, and share your life with a pet who longs for a forever home.”

Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

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