This is a post about kid’s books.
Sometimes you find yourself idly reading a seemingly innocuous-looking picture book to your child when everything goes pear-shaped in an instant. It’s when, apropos of nothing, things start getting weird and scary and morbid. It’s like the literary equivalent of “The Smurfs” meets “Blue Velvet”.
I picked up a whole bunch of books from the library one time, I was in a rush and didn’t have time to read the synopses. To be fair, I will admit that excuse fails to hold weight when you consider I had ample time to briefly peruse the contents myself once we had it at home. Look, I guess I was just lazy. I can’t even remember what this book was called, but it was something chummy and generic like “Ol’ Clem & Me”, with a picture of a boy and his shaggy dog beaming jauntily from the front cover. There was nothing Cujo-like about it so I failed to feel negligent for not pre-screening the contents.
The thought process at the time went something like this: Oh good. A jolly book about a boy and his dog. I have a boy. The boy has two dogs. How appropriate.
So we start reading this thing – as warm and lovely a story as I had expected – when about halfway through I start getting that unsettled feeling that something is not quite right. The foreshadowing is as clear as day. The dog is going to DIE. The frigging dog is GOING TO DIE.
My son was about 2.5 years old at the time, way too soon to have even an elementary grasp of mortality, life and death.
As soon as I sensed doom I surreptitiously flicked forward a couple of pages to confirm the storyline I feared was unfolding. Shit. The author has just dropped me in a big steaming pile of unexpected existential dog poo. Thanks a lot, asshole.
I needed an exit plan.
“This book is BORING. How about we read something else instead?”.
Shit. In my panic to deter him I clumsily made the number one error of toddler behaviour management, by posing my instruction as a question. It was an embarrassing rookie error, and one I was way too experienced to make by then, but the looming spectre of the dead bloody dog had me rattled. I cringed, knowing instantly and without doubt what his reply was going to be.
“No. I want to keep reading THIS one”.
“Really? How about this Richard Scarry story? Mr Frumble is FUNNY!”.
Gah! Another question! It was the most pathetic act of salesmanship I had seen since I last walked within five metres of a Pixi-Photo booth at the shopping centre.
“No. I want to read about the dog”.
Shit. There was no turning back. Time to improvise.
To cut a long, fumbling story short, in the Zilla version the dog “fell asleep” and then went on a solo holiday to an unknown destination for a very long time. The little boy was sad because his mum didn’t have enough money to send him too. The End. If you read it as a metaphor you will note that I rather impressively managed to stay fairly true to the original storyline under pressure, but without traumatising my kid for life. Well done me.
And that wasn’t even the first time this had happened. You would have thought I’d learnt my lesson.
Black Dog by Pamela Allen. The very thought of it still sends a shudder down my spine, despite the fact that our barely-thumbed copy is no doubt rotting in landfill as we speak. I refused to donate it to charity. The downtrodden already have enough in their lives to worry about without adding this bleakly dysfunctional and depressing tale to their list of woes.
It is still possibly THE most bizarre and disturbing children’s book by a major author I have ever come across. And we read a LOT. The short version is that the girl and the dog are best friends, the girl becomes obsessed with a beautiful blue bird that sits in a tree outside her window, the dog gets ignored and neglected for a prolonged period of time and ultimately throws himself off the top of the tallest tree in a grief-stricken attempt to get her attention back. The black dog barely survives and suffers extensive injuries. The girl pays attention to him again because he is hurt, at which point he is happy again. The End. It’s f**ked up.
There are three reviews for this on Good Reads.
One of them includes the phrase: “The illustrations are what can only be described as terrifying. Proceed with caution.”
The other simply reads: “I don’t get it…?”
I read this story verbatim to my two year old, none of this jaunty making-it-up as-I-went-along business. I think I was too mesmerised by the David Lynch-style surrealism of the plot to be able to pull myself out of the story and make up some happy crap about flying dogs and fairies in the forest. Being able to bullshit your way through disturbing stories is a skill that takes time to develop. My son wasn’t traumatised by it but I sure as hell was. I NEVER read a fluffy dog story now without flicking to the end first to make sure they come out alive and unharmed at the end, and to reassure myself that they are not involved in a deeply dysfunctional sado-masochistic relationship with their owner.
“Black Dog” is the “Blue Velvet” of children’s literature. You have been warned.