Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Review of Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel

I’ve liked Janet Stevens’s work for years—she may be best known for her Caldecott Honor book, the folktale Tops and Bottoms, but my personal favorite is her rendition of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, complete with the biggest goat brother in a leather motorcycle jacket and dark glasses. Priceless!

Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Stevens and her sister came out about a year ago, in Spring 2008, but if you’re like me, you missed it. I discovered the book a few months ago, and I’ve been sharing it with friends ever since. I suppose the ideal audience for this picture book would be dog lovers, but pet owners in general and just about anyone with a sense of humor will probably appreciate it.

Mr. Mutt gives us a series of letters from dogs to a canine Dear Abby whose responses will amuse humans because they implement dog logic, not people logic. For example, a dachsund writes that he is wasting away because his owners have put him on a diet. Adding to the humor, he includes a drawing of himself as stick thin—alongside a photo that shows he truly is plump. Mr. Mutt’s advice? Swipe people food. The counselor includes a doggy food pyramid which indicates that dry dog food should be avoided and things like hamburgers, birthday cakes, and Thanksgiving turkeys should be ingested at a high rate. Mr. Mutt recommends that big dogs scavenge on countertops, while smaller dogs will have to use teamwork. Checking the trash or lying under the baby’s highchair should also help. And for an after-dinner drink, try the toilet.

If it just consisted of these letters, the book might not quite work. But there’s a running gag which provides a narrative thread: Mr. Mutt and his correspondents are constantly exchanging jibes about spoiled house cats, and a cat named The Queen in Mr. Mutt’s own home takes offense. The cat, who is apparently lurking beneath the very table where Mr. Mutt is typing, begins inserting warning letters on regal stationery, e.g., “Watch it, Muttface. Cats are not spoiled rotten. Especially me. I am royalty. I am The Queen. P.S. The Queen would never drink from a toilet.” Little by little, as the book progresses, The Queen gets more angry, until at last she goes after Mr. Mutt, who must then be rescued by his loyal fans.

The humor in this book is on the sophisticated side--a four-year-old wouldn’t really get it. But six- to eight-year-olds should be vastly amused, especially with some help from a grown-up reader and more particularly if they own cats and/or dogs. Be sure to look at the final endpaper, which rounds out the tale. Help Me, Mr. Mutt! may be something of a niche picture book, but it is also the funniest thing I’ve seen since The Flim-Flam Fairies.

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