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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.


Jenkins, Emily That New Animal; illus by Pierre Pratt.
Foster/Farrar, 2005 [32p]
ISBN 0-374-37443-0 $16.00
Reviewed from galleys
4-7 yrs

Publishing is a mysterious thing, especially in its tendency to produce several books on a similar and apparently random theme in a short period of time. One recent example is the picture-book plot wherein a household's animals respond to the arrival of a new baby, seen in Rosen's Howler (BCCB 5/04) and MacLachlan's Bittle  (9/04), and which appears now in its most witty and yet sympathetic form in Jenkins and Pratt's That New Animal.

The popularity of the concept is understandable, since it's a way of speaking straightforwardly yet with tactful obliqueness about the dethronement anxiety of a kid faced with a new sibling, and the pet's-eye view of the world provides additional charm. These classic appeals receive sparkling, sure-handed treatment from Jenkins, who is quietly making a career, with books such as Five Creatures (BCCB 2/01) and Daffodil (7/04), as one of the freshest, most evocative, and most accessible picture-book writers of family life. Her text here is a deceptively simple present-tense narrative sculpted down into plainspoken essentials familiar to anybody who's ever seen their family life altered by a new arrival.

In this case, the main victims of upheaval are Marshmallow, a plump white pooch, and FudgeFudge, a slightly trimmer brown mutt, and they know the new animal is trouble right from the start. Despite the fact that it doesn't smell like a proper dog, it's given FudgeFudge's place on the sofa, and Marshmallow's pleas for a tummy rub are ignored in favor of its coos. Fairness has gone out the window: when the dogs make noise, they're disciplined, but everybody comes running at the new animal's cries. Marshmallow does his best to curb the resentful FudgeFudge (refusing even to let her "bite it a LITTLE bit"), but even he finally loses his cool and pees all over the carpet, only to receive the stern reproof "You're a big dog. . . . What's the matter with you?" It's another matter, however, when a strange Grandpa arrives and tries to pick up the new animal; FudgeFudge and Marshmallow fend him off, declaring, "It's not his new animal to go picking up whenever he feels like it. It's our animal."

Pratt's paintings are suffused with warm tones and furry-textured brushstrokes that comfort evenduring the dogs' anxious moments. Not only do baby and dogs tend to operate on the same visual plane while the adults have their heads in the clouds, there's a stealthy statement in the characters' drafting--the big, bulbous baby (with a classic little-old-man facies) is shaped more like the rotund dogs than his angularly linear parents--that emphasizes the close connection between baby and pups. The compositions are wisely pared down, ensuring they don't overpower Jenkins' text, and the canines are comic in their cheerful blockiness but not visually anthropomorphized: their routing of a dejected Grandpa with their stiff-tailed barking is authentically doggy even as it dovetails neatly with the plot.

The book's unerring identification of the sore spots of dethronement--changing standards, attention drought, physical displacement--will definitely strike chords of recognition in young audiences, and the naturalness of the canine impulse for bad behavior in response makes it a superb correlative for sibling resentment. Even the dogs' eventual acceptance of the new kid is couched in realistically primal terms that put possession ("It is our new animal to hate as much as we want to") before affection ("And to like, just a little bit"). Yet there's nothing in the rueful and understanding humor that prevents this from being a generally funny story about dogs, even as there's everything in it that allows it to be a reassuring story about family change..

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Pierre Pratt from That New Animal ©2005. Used by permission of Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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