In Katherine Selbert’s War Dogs, Winston Churchill and his poodle Rufus are wonderfully compatible, and so are the author-illustrator’s words and pictures. This glimpse into Churchill’s life during World War II is a great example of how much of a story can be omitted from the text and carried by a combination of the pictures and skillfully placed tip-offs. Nowhere in War Dogs does the text say that Rufus is a poodle, or even a dog. It doesn’t need to. The illustrations reveal his size, color, and breed. He sniffs, his ear twitches, he begs Mrs. Churchill for treats, he holds Winston’s hat in his teeth.
Selbert’s words do double duty to inform the reader that the prime minister and Rufus are alike in many ways. Winston sets his shoulders like a tenacious bulldog when he addresses the House of Commons, he works doggedly with his advisers on the invasion plans, and he bundles into a woolly coat. The ending reveals that Churchill was known as the British Bulldog. The final two-page spread satisfies by closing the loop, echoing the book’s title: “They rest in the country at last, two war dogs.”
“Do you know of a Book of the Month Club for preschoolers?” a young mom, who also happens to be my daughter, asked me last summer. I jumped at the chance to provide that service, and Hands Can became my selection for September.
Photos of diverse kindergarten-aged children, intent on discoveries and overflowing with love, serve as illustrations for the rhyming, rollicking text. It’s a book that lends itself perfectly to being read and recited with motions. There are seeds to be planted, clay to be molded, trucks to be fixed, and finger paint to be mixed.
Hands Can is an instant language lesson, perfect for toddlers and or for a greater age range of children acquiring English as a second language. Is it a just a coincidence that the title features two great examples of the short a sound, so important in early reading lessons? Whether lucky or clever, it works!
When I investigated more titles by Cheryl Willis Hudson, I found that she and I have a slight connection. She co-authored Bright Eyes, Brown Skin with Bernette Ford, a gracious author/editor/book packager who spoke at the Highlights Foundation Workshop I attended a few years back. Both women have worked for over 20 years to provide schools and parents with more books featuring African American children, a worthy precedent to today’s We Need Diverse Books campaign.
When reprint time comes around, I do have a suggestion for Hands Can publisher Candlewick Press. Honor the author’s mission by choosing some African American children for the cover. The illustration from the “Hands can say, ‘I love you’” page would be just perfect.