Great Dog – Davide Cali and Miguel Tanco, Tundra Books, 2018
Every child comes into the world with great expectations, not his own, but his parents. In Davide Cali and Miguel Tanco’s Great Dog readers empathize with the small and sensitive young creature, as well as the bigger, but still caring, older person who lays out the ambitious possibilities for the future. We all have a mental list of family portraits; here it is a literal one, set out in a picture gallery of accomplished ancestors for a kid who just wants to be himself. Embedded in the story is a surprise ending, suggesting that parental acceptance may be broader than expected.
The protagonist’s tall and distinguished canine father is almost haughtily proud of his family’s distinctions. His face may be shaggy with fur, but his elegantly tailored jacket and dignified pose make him a tough act to follow. Not to mention all those talented relatives, including Angus the police dog apprehending robbers and Aunt Doris, the brave firefighter. (It’s interesting how this aristocratic-appearing dog had some truly working-class roots.) “’What about me?’” the young animal asks anxiously, only to be reassured that “My dad has no doubt about it. ‘No matter what,’ he says, ‘you will be a GREAT dog!’” Those all capital letters could not be more certain, nor more off-putting.
If first responders are not his son’s primary choice of role model, there are also Uncle Tibor the marathon runner, Aunt Frida the artist, and Uncle Scooter the teacher. Uncle Scooter seems less intimidating, if only because his classroom is a chaotic scene of students riding bicycles and cutting one another’s hair in apparent disregard of their instructor. With every possibility offered by this proud parent, we feel a little more uneasy.
What if his son is not teacher, or artist, or even astronaut material? Every child has had moments of doubt about his parent’s unconditional love, and this father’s almost overbearing assurance only increases our suspicions that his fatherhood might be a little too tied up in his own pride, perhaps even some of those unfulfilled dreams that hover in the background of every parent-child relationship.
The simple understatement of the text conveys both the son’s insecurity and the father’s confidence. Tanco’s delightful pictures of apparently European city life recall both classic children’s book illustration and the fantastic scenes of a child’s imagination. Whether a little dog helplessly but calmly shot out of cannon in the circus, or a beret-wearing dog artist delicately posed on a ladder, the images erase boundaries between plausible and make-believe, exactly the way that these two elements blend in a child’s mind. Tanco’s signature detailed buildings and rooms are a joyful mixture of nostalgia and realism. (It’s a good thing those Dalmatians are there to put out the flames in the windows!) Fans of Tango’s equally distinguished Count on Me will want to look for the same vintage radio posed on a bureau in both books.