Books

It’s a Dog’s Life — or Is It?

PAWCASSO
By Remy Lai

At first glance I assumed this graphic novel was about art. The title is a play on “Picasso,” and there’s a dog on the cover. Maybe the dog is a painter?

Spoiler alert: He’s not. Nonetheless, follow him and you’ll soon be immersed in a skillfully woven story of acceptance and forgiveness.

These concepts aren’t easy to present to a young audience in an upbeat way, but Remy Lai (“Pie in the Sky” and “Fly on the Wall”) succeeds: The dog provides both reliable comfort and comedic relief.

Pets and babies always upstage their fellow actors, so let’s talk about the dog. Lai knows dogs! This book is filled with masterly drawings of the furry kind. My favorites include the dog’s map of the woods (great dog perspective) and the dog with a spa-day head wrap (truly adorable). The montage of the dog rolling in poop is wonderful. Yes, you read that correctly. There’s genuine happiness on that dog’s face. When it comes to artistic line and expression, the dog is a star.

The story begins on the first day of summer vacation. Jo, a young girl, notices a dog carrying a basket and follows him. Curious and adventurous — I like her already. I, too, want to know more.

This is no ordinary dog. There’s a list and money in the basket, and he happily trots into town to shop for his family! I have to admit, I felt a little defeated here. I can’t even get my dogs to stop barking, let alone help with chores.

The dog easily navigates his way around the town’s shopping circle. This certainly isn’t my town. A dog without an owner would be snatched and rescued in minutes. Though I decide to suspend my disbelief, it turns out I’m not alone in my concern — the pros and cons of free-roaming dogs feature later in the story.

When Jo follows the dog into a bookstore, where he interrupts a student art class, she is quickly assumed to be his owner. It’s a mistake Jo is slow to fix. This dog opens all doors! Literally and figuratively. Jo is suddenly surrounded with new friends, free snacks and local fame. Sure, everyone likes the dog, but they like her, too. Acceptance! That’s a prize worthy of a little deception.

Some readers might be uncomfortable with a main character caught up in a lie, but I kept rooting for Jo’s success. The fame is an escalating problem, threatening exposure, and it keeps Jo and the action steadily charging forward.

The lie isn’t Jo’s only worry. Her father works in another country and his rare home visits are short. Would his departure be less painful if she stopped loving him so much? She gives it a try. We see the family together for a few days; Jo is distant and aloof. I might have shed a tear or two.

Late in the book, an event involving the dog leads to conflicting opinions, and the townspeople quickly pick sides. Loyalties are displayed via posters, pins and self-righteous attitudes. The magnitude of bad behavior was a surprise to me, but it shouldn’t have been. This kind of social unrest is familiar. Reimagined in the context of small-town pet-leashing, it’s thought-provoking and worthy of discussion.

The resolution won’t surprise anyone, but it’s satisfying. A combination of varied layouts; beautiful, gently paced single pages; and fast-moving spreads keeps us on tempo with the changes in Jo’s life.

And don’t forget about the dog. He’s so very cute … and he carries a basket!

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