Review of the Day: Sheep
Sorry guys. I've lots to write and no time to do so. But here's a little number that has a cover that will entice even someone who is not a dog lover. Which is to say, me. I just learned today that books with lame cover art are referred to as "shelf sitters". Such a term does not apply to "Sheep".
People just don't give cover art enough credit. The cover of a book can make or break a novel, you know. Especially one for children. For example, if the art looks like it stepped out of a 1985 Twisted Sister music video, the book is going to suffer. If it's shiny and has lots of fantastical images crowding for attention, it will possibly do well as an impulse buy. Then you come to covers like the one accompanying Valerie Hobbs's, "Sheep". First of all, nice use of white space. Clever concept too. Who's gonna resist a picture of a dog imagining a sheep? But then you begin to understand just how smart the picture was. This is a book about a young border collie who dreams of herding sheep in spite of the increasingly difficult situations he finds himself in. The dog on the cover of this book is EXACTLY the right age. He's not too old and he's not too young. Add in the intelligent but quizzical look the dog is throwing you and you have a perfect complement to a lovely little book. So a tip of the hat to Patrick Doyle and a big big bow to Valerie Hobbs. "Sheep" is a lovely succinct little tale of a dog, his quest, and his place in the world.
Our hero has had lots of names over the years, but for the purposes of this review let's just call him Jack. Now Jack was born a border collie and he's a border collie through and through. His entire life is bent on the sole purpose of herding sheep someday. Unfortunately, tragedy hits his ranch long before he's old enough to start working alongside his father. When a fire forces Jack's owner to sell him off to the wide wide world, the little pup is devastated. He finds himself in a pet shop and sold to a little girl with let's-dress-the-dog-up-in-baby-clothes issues. With a quick leap over the fence and away, Jack is soon on the road and meeting all kinds of people. He jolts around with a man who lives entirely with a pack of goats. He takes up with a pair of "Of Mice and Men" type cons and after that is made to suffer in a two-bit circus. At last he finds a boy like himself who's alone in the world, and Jack finds that he can still make a difference in someone's life. Even if it doesn't involve herding sheep.
At a scant 115 pages, "Sheep" is an ideal book for any kid who's just gotten comfortable reading chapter books that don't have pictures in them. Jack's tale is always exciting but that doesn't mean it has to rely on constant action. If Hobbs is good at anything she knows how to carry a theme through a book without making it overly obvious or simplified. One of the things I liked about this story was how Jack had a certain innate dignity. Any time that dignity was compromised he would extricate himself from the situation and move on to another. This happens with his first adoption, results in a severe beating he receives later on, and is at the core of why he sticks with the boy he loves at the end. Add in the title's humor and the fact that you never have a moment's doubt that this is a dog you're listening to and you've got yourself a fine little book.
Of course books from a dog's point of view are hardly new. The first thing I thought of when I saw, "Sheep" was Ann Martin's, "A Dog's Life". Dog P.O.V.s exist in everything from the fantastical ("Dogsbody" by Diana Wynne Jones) to the comical ("I, Jack" by Patricia Finney). No one ever gets sick of them and it seems as if you can never have enough of them around. Certainly "Sheep" feels fresh and fine with every page. A great title for kids who refuse to read anything but dog books, kids who are reluctant readers, and kids who just like a good story. Simply swell.