Fuse #8

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Review of the Day: Aggie and Ben - Three Stories

Aggie and Ben: Three Stories by Lori Ries. Illustrations by Frank W. Dormer. Charlesbridge Publishing. $12.95

A boy and his dog. Children’s literature is just chock full of such pairings. Of course, when you start hitting the upper end of the age spectrum, such books inevitably lead to a dead dog somewhere along the line. So if you are squeamish, like me, you’ll find far more comfort in picture books instead. The “Henry and Mudge” set are always going to be clamoring for more doggy lit. As such “Aggie and Ben: Three Stories” fills a very real need. With simple words perfect for burgeoning readers and pictures that examine every angle and view, there is nothing complicated about this book. It just goes to prove that sometimes the most unencumbered stories are the most satisfying.

Broken into three small tales, the first story in this book is “The Surprise”. One day Daddy informs Ben that they’re going somewhere to get an unexpected delight. The next moment the two are in a pet store to look for someone perfect. Ben is very good at weighing the pros and cons of each potential animal. In the end, he decides that a dog would be best, and the best dog of the lot is the one that makes him laugh. In story number two, “Just Like Aggie”, Ben pretends to be a dog himself as he and Aggie explore the home. Aggie has some pretty funny ideas about what to drink, where to sleep, what to chew, and where she belongs. Fortunately she has Ben nearby to straighten her out. Finally, in the “The Scary Thing” Aggie is afraid of various noises and shadows that appear in Ben’s room. In the end, however, Ben (who starts getting a little freaked out by his perpetually on notice pup) is able to convince Aggie that the bedroom is safe. “There is nothing scary. Just me and Aggie.”

Author Lori Ries (a dog owner herself) has given the world a very rare item. Picture books with simple words for early readers may sound like they’re a dime a dozen, but try locating one for kicks. Go on. You can find plenty of small books like “Frog and Toad” or “Alien and Possum” but try locating a picture book that uses the same simple vocabulary. In 2005 the best book to do this was the truly wonderful, “A Splendid Friend, Indeed”, by Suzanne Bloom. This year, the honor falls to “Aggie and Ben”. Which is to say that Ms. Ries has that very rare ability to write simply and wittily. At one point in the book, for example, Ben gets Aggie home for the first time and sets about imitating her every move. Then we come to the following: “Aggie goes into the bathroom. I go into the bathroom, too. Aggie sees the toilet.” Beat. “I am done being a dog.” You don’t come across too many droll picture books these days. Credit “Aggie and Ben” then with an understated sense of humor and the ability to hand the viewer some sweet and honest moments.

Sometimes an author will trump their illustrator with their superior wordplay. Other times an artist will put a writer’s works to shame with their command of a scintillating palette. In “Aggie and Ben”, however, I was relieved to find an equal pairing of talents. If Lori Ries is queen of the sublime passage then Frank Dormer is her undeniably talented king. Drawn in pen and ink with watercolors on (and here I simply MUST quote this to you), “140-lb. cold-press Winsor and Newton paper”, Dormer isn’t afraid to move beyond the expected. He moves away from single panels or enclosed spreads. Sometimes a character will be featured quite simply against a white background. Other times they’ll appeal in a full-page or half-page square. Even better, Dormer likes to shakes things up a bit by changing his angles. At one point you’ll be looking down at the characters in the book. The next moment you’re at the bottom of a hill and Aggie is racing straight towards you, hell for leather. The simple lines and soft colors are distinctive enough to keep the average reader from confusing Dormer’s style with anyone else. Wanna know the kicker? This is his first book. How amazing is that? Talk about an artist “getting it” right from the get-go.

Undoubtedly you could pair “Aggie and Ben” with another new pooch book. My personal favorite is the remarkably wonderful, “Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate” by Bob Graham. Ries’s story deals with simpler issues and characters, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t just as engaging in its way. More sophisticated (and palatable) than “Biscuit” and lots of fun to look at, “Aggie and Ben” has no choice but to become loved by child that finds it. There is a very great danger that you may miss this book as it flies under the radar. See that you snatch yourself a copy at the most opportune moment.

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