Review of the Day: The Problem with the Puddles by Kate Feiffer
It didn’t grab me at first. Not the first chapter. Not necessarily the second either. As a children’s librarian that reads whole mountains-worth of children’s literature I have to be picky about what I pick up. If a book hasn’t caught me by the throat within a chapter or two I’m inclined to move on and cut my losses. Something drew me back to The Problem with the Puddles, though. I couldn’t quite identify what it was. Was it the narrator’s voice? The characters? The quick cutting between wayward humans and far saner canines? Whatever it was, I’d like to thank it now. The Problem with the Puddles is a strange, uncommon, rare little children’s book. The kind of title that sits on a shelf, twiddling its thumbs, just waiting for the chance to infiltrate its way into a reader’s mind where it will remain for years to come. I can’t promise you’ll adore The Problem with the Puddles. Not if you’re an adult anyway. But if you’re a kid with a love of integrated text and image and a deep and abiding appreciation for a strong sense of story, I cannot press this book into your palms fast enough. Brother, you ain’t never read nothing like this before.
They did not mean to leave the dogs. That’s probably pretty certain. But between Mrs. Puddle desperate to get away from their country home and Mr. Puddle desperate to stay in their country home, to say nothing of the kids (Baby and Tom) squeezing in amongst all the stuff . . . well the dogs just sort of got left behind. Big Sally and little Sally (Mr. and Mrs. Puddle can agree on nothing so you’ll find some interesting names in their family) are nothing if not resourceful pets, however. So it is that they set off to be reunited with their owners in the city while the Puddles struggle to decide whether or not to turn back. Before all is said and done interpretive dance, messy homes, discovered secrets, long-lost relatives, handsome villains, and a high concentration of exceedingly smelly animals will involve the Puddles’ (both human and animal). But everything turns out all right in the end . . . . almost.
In my experience there’s something about the flavor of this book that appeals to kids. Whether its read on its own or read to a child, kids have a lasting affection for The Puddles. There are even sentences that will probably appeal more to the adult reading this book to their child, though a smart kid might get in on the joke as well. Example: "The two Sallys, who were sometimes referred to as Sally Squared . . ." I’d love to hear the audiobook version of this title, actually, since there are a couple portions that just beg to be heard. At one moment Baby flirts with the notion of hitchhiking, until a passing policeman puts an end to that notion. As she converses with him, Baby manages to end each sentence with the phrase, "Are you going to arrest me?" It happens about five times, and when read correctly could be downright hilarious. Ditto any speech given by the friendly if verbose Frankolin. This is a title that begs to be heard, not just seen.
Really, the book plays with a strange logic entirely of its own. In spite of the older in-jokes, sometimes it feels like it’s holding a very personal conversation with the child reader. One that the adult reader is not privy to. At one point The Puddles opines, "Why is it that the things you aren’t supposed to know about always seem so much more interesting than the things you are allowed to know about? Write your answer here:" A very small line appears after this sentence.
With any good book the author has to determine what each individual character wants. And The Puddles, if nothing else, is about defining what everyone wants and either thwarting or aiding them. This is definitely the case with the Sallys. Feiffer taps into a particular kind of dog logic that is difficult to come up with unless a person has lived with dogs for a long period of time. For example, at one point the Sallys discuss the country and little Sally wonders which is older, the city or the country? Big Sally makes a strong case for the city being older. "Just look at it. I looks so much older than the country. Everything is gray and cracked. The country looks green and fresh. The city’s older. I can remember the city from when I was a puppy. I think the country just came around a few years ago."
Now as you’ll recall, I said earlier that it took me a chapter or two to get into this book. Once I did I found myself enjoying it quite a lot. Then suddenly we meet a fellow who is a secret catcher, and I got worried. The book seemed to veer in a very different direction, and I felt left behind. So for another two chapters or so I worried mightily. I didn’t think that Feiffer was going to be able to get back on track after introducing this entirely new character and his unique (to say the least) occupation. But back on track it returned and by the end I was satisfied with the subplot’s inclusion, even if the initial introduction to it was jarring.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention illustrator Tricia Tusa at some point here. She’s what we like to call one of the nation’s untapped resources. Or at the very least, inadequately tapped. If I had my way Ms. Tusa would illustrate every other children’s book out there. She’d be exhausted, but at least I’d be satisfying my Tusa craving. Having proved already that she can do dogs like nobody’s business in the book Fred Stays With Me, Tusa’s spot-on illustrations in The Puddles never distract or detract from the narrative. They instead offer just the right whimsical touch. Without becoming twee or too terribly sweet, Tusa’s pictures humanize everyone she draws. On top of that, she’s funny. There were moments involving a dog simply named "the king", a nasty little boy with two visible teeth, and an impromptu interpretive dance that made me chuckle excessively. But I think it was the image of a cranky old farmer with his walking stuck, suspenders and shaking his fist made me actually crack up the most. Tusa makes for a superior match to this book. An inspired pairing.
Like a bloodhound on a scent, I can tell when a book is going to be divisive. Regardless of whether or not I myself like the title, there’s a certain strain of writing and a certain mode of prose that splits the adult readership of children’s books (librarians, parents, teachers, etc.) in half. I smell it in The Problem with the Puddles. Now remember, I am a fan. I think this book is tops, swell, pick-of-the-litter, and other positive if slightly outdated terms of praise. And just as certainly I can tell that not everyone is going to feel as I do about it. Maybe it’s the writing, which isn’t your standard rote fare. Maybe it’s the tone. Maybe it’s the fact that Baby comes perilously close to hitchhiking at one point. Whatever the case, while I think a fair swath of kids will enjoy The Puddles, don’t assume every adult you run across will. This book is essentially dark dark chocolate. You have to have a taste for it. Kids will. Discerning adults too.
On shelves now.
First Line: “A cloud hovers over the Puddles.”
Other Online Reviews:
- There’s a piece on Ms. Feiffer and this book in the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
- And an interview with Ms. Tusa at Seven Impossible Things talks a tiny amount about illustrating this book.
- Still can’t decide whether or not to check it out? Read the first chapter here.
- Like that first chapter? Why not read more of it (with pictures!) here.
- For that matter, why bother with the eye strain? Just listen to it here:
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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