Pretzel – Margret Rey and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (reprint of 1944 edition)
Pretzel and the Puppies – Margret and H.A. Rey, Harper and Brothers, 1946
Margret and H.A. Rey wrote and illustrated several books about animals with human qualities, in addition to their classic monkey-as-toddler, Curious George (my most recent Curious George blog also links to several older blogs on the subject).
Pretzel the dachshund first appears as one of five siblings, all with names beginning with the same letter, always a funny premise to children. Yet, in spite of that same first initial, Pretzel grows up to be different. His special dachshund quality grows strangely awry; soon he is longer than any other member of his breed. Since this is a children’s book by the Reys, you know that his weird idiosyncrasy is going to turn out to be a big plus.
H.A. Rey provides clear points of comparison for Pretzel’s odd dimensions. He sticks out of sibling lineup, and needs an extra-long display cubby when he wins a Blue Ribbon as “best looking dog of all,” obviously awarded by a discerning and compassionate group of judges. Then he meets Greta, a girl dachshund of normal proportions and soon “Pretzel was in love with her and wanted to marry her.” He is completely defenseless and naïve, meeting Greta’s snide refusals with a heartbreaking “Please marry me…and I will do anything for you.” Children may be wondering at this point what he sees in his prejudiced love object, who doesn’t even bother to conceal that she is put off by his looks. He offers her a beautiful green ball and even twists himself into the snack for which he is named. At least that gymnastic feat ears him a grudging compliment: “Not bad…your name certainly fits you,” from Greta. (This may seem like a small point; how did Pretzel’s invisible owners know his future length when then named him?)
Only when Greta’s life is endangered and Pretzel has the size, and the courage, to rescue her, does she relent. This is not the end of their saga. Children will be gratified to see, on the last page, that Greta becomes the proud mother, judging by the expression on her face, of five puppies. Everything has been resolved, and a satisfying sense of life’s permanence concludes the book. The Reys, however, still had more to say about this odd couple and their progeny. They decided to do so a little different, in comic book/graphic novel form. Pretzel and the Puppies explores what happens when a conventional mother and a well-intentioned but still naïve father, produce a family.
Perhaps the popularity of comics during the 1940s influenced their choice. The story opens with pictures of Pretzel and Greta, along with their five children: Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck. (Is Puck the unconventional one?). The last caption reads, “And if you want to know more about Pretzel – -,” continuing “—just turn the page!” after the reader does so. Even better, there is one small image in the center of that next page, of four puppies surrounding a book while one puppy actually turns the page. A series of chapters, in the form of individual vignettes, continues the story. In each one, Pretzel is the impulsive, fun dad, entertaining his children by climbing trees after squirrels, buying them balloons, and taking them for a walk in an unforeseen thunderstorm.
At the conclusion of each episode, Pretzel suffers some negative result, sometimes even an injury which looks awfully frightening, such as his long body covered by abrasions which the puppies bandage, or, getting covered with soot as he falls down the chimney to recover their football. That last one doesn’t seem to faze him, as he has the same broad smile on his face that accompanies most of his activities in the book. The important part is that his children remain unscathed through every harsh episode.
As for Greta, she remains the responsible parent, keeping the home fires burning while Pretzel has fun. She finds the children’s missing toy inside a fish while she is preparing supper, and brings enough hot water bottles to cover her husband’s long body when he has a cold. She can’t resist expressing annoyance when Pretzel splashes water all over her newly-waxed floor. They are complementary parents, Pretzel and Greta, and the unconnected format of the comic strips allows the Reys to avoid any real conclusions about how well this works. Polly, Penny, Pat, Pete, and Puck seem happy on the last page, as they follow their father on another adventure with mixed results. When they get older, who knows?