Book Review: The Playful Little Dog
The Playful Little Dog
by Jean Horton Berg
illustrated by Maurice Robertson
Penguin Random House’s Young Readers division is producing a line of “retro-chic” children’s books about which the only false note is the line’s name: “G+D Vintage,” which will call to most readers’ minds the kind of thing they shout when they’ve barked their shin in the dark. The unfortunate abbreviation stands for Grosset & Dunlap, which has delved into its voluminous archives and made the inspired decision to resurrect some of the delights of their old Wonder Books series. These dear old titles have been dusted off, reformatted, scanned and cleaned up for a new generation.
A new generation of hipster adults, one instinctively fears, with the G+D Vintage line mainly being intended to feed the bottomless G+D Williamsburg appetite for all things anachronistic. In this nightmare scenario, the young parents in question polymer-bag their “retro-chic” classics and only allow little Tallulah and Roscoe to look at them once they’ve finished their taxidermy lessons.
We can hope that a few copies actually make it through to their intended audience, because the books in this series are utterly wonderful productions, big and clean and immensely cheerful.
One of the latest such productions, The Playful Little Dog, is a bustling, happy chestnut from 1951, written by redoubtable and indefatigable hack (and Christian Scientist) Jean Horton Berg and illustrated with casual, almost patrician grace by Maurice Robertson. The story revolves around the Biggers family, a mother, father, and little daughter who have a problem: their building in the city has suddenly forbidden dogs, and they happen to have one, an exuberant Boston Terrier named Archie.
So the Biggers have to move. They drive their enormous car out into the distant, sylvan suburbs, and there they find a lovely house, just perfect for their needs: a nearby train station so Mr. Biggers can get into the city for his job, a nearby market so Mrs. Biggers can do her shopping, and local children so little Julie will have playmates. And the hope of little Archie? That the neighborhood will have some friendly new dogs for him to meet.
But as they’re all cleaning up the house and settling in with the neighbors, they learn that just the opposite is the case: the family next door is away on vacation, but when they get back, the neighborhood will once again be tyrannized by their enormous unfriendly dog. “He’s very cross, and everyone is afraid of him,” the Biggers are told. “I expect he’ll eat your little dog in just one gulp!”
And when the neighbors return, sure enough, their bull mastiff is as fearsome as advertised, lunging at the fence and growling. Things look quite bleak, and then Archie does something that makes them seem even worse: he vaults over the fence and immediately begins leading the neighborhood bully-dog a merry chase!
The whole thing could put a smile on the face of even the most hardened Brooklyn boutique beekeeper. Berg’s story is simple and refreshing in its certainties – the Biggers family never for an instant contemplates the far easier choice of expelling little Archie from their original home, and their new neighbors never hesitate to welcome them, and Archie himself never doubts the reaction he’ll get from the frowning dog five times his size. And Robertson’s artwork captures this breezy postwar bonhomie perfectly, especially in Archie’s tireless joy at being a playful little dog.
There’s certainly no shortage of new picture books in the Children’s section of every retail bookstore, but even so, it’s nice to make a little room for these favorites from their grandparents’ childhood.