For each of the books I work on, I find myself quickly developing a sort of elevator pitch — a quick summary that tries to capture what it’s all about and why I love it.
There are plenty of occasions that call for this sort of thing: When the acquisition committee wants to know, “Why should we publish this book?” When a librarian, teacher, or some other curious book lover inquires, “What new books do you have coming out this fall?” When a friend asks, “What have you been working on that you’re excited about?” Tell us about this book, they all seem to say, in thirty seconds or less, if you can.
Usually, this isn’t a problem for me. I know these books well, and I care deeply about them.
But there are some books that just defy easy summary. These are the books that I fall head over heels for, but can’t seem to capture in just a few words, no matter how hard I try.
The Dog that Nino Didn’t Have (Edward van de Vendel; illus. Anton Van Hertbruggen) has always been one of those books. We knew we loved it, but we just couldn’t seem to make a quick pitch out of it. It’s so darn many things — a story about a boy’s imaginary dog and the real dog that doesn’t quite measure up to it, a melancholy look at a child trying to cope with an absent parent, a gorgeous oversized picture book brimming with retro illustrations that Kirkus called “sumptuous.” And then there’s its tone: sad and wry and playful all at the same time, utterly unconventional and impossible to do justice to with just second-hand description.
I can say all of that, though, and still not feel satisfied that I’ve gotten at the heart of what The Dog that Nino Didn’t Have is all about.
I didn’t really come up with a satisfying way to describe this book until one day I happened to see a video put out by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, of a group of rather brilliant fifth graders discussing a different book: Keats’s The Trip. (You can check out the video here, if you’re curious.)
In The Trip, a young boy named Louie has to leave all his friends behind when his family moves to a new neighborhood. So he decides to use an old shoebox to create a city scene, and with that, his imagination takes him on a marvelous journey back to old times and old friends.
In many ways, it’s a similar story to Nino. It’s tinged with the same sense of loss and powerlessness that can be such a part of childhood. Louie poignantly misses his old doorstep, and Nino’s imaginary dog licks away his salty tears. Neither can control his situation, but both cope with the best tool they have: their imaginations.
The line that stuck with me most from the video about The Trip was this: “As a child, that is what you have control over — your imagination.” And that, in a nutshell, is what The Dog that Nino Didn’t Have is all about.
In a world full of uncertainty and loneliness, the one thing that children (and maybe all of us, in a way) have control over is imagination. Imagination can’t make everything perfect — but it can make things better. It won’t fix everything, but maybe it’s enough. And if it’s not, there are always more dreams — maybe of an imaginary giraffe or a make-believe bear, a not-hippopotamus or a not-rhinoceros. Or simply a sweet little dog that you don’t actually happen to have.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.