Review of the Day: Hot Dog by Doug Salati
By Doug Salati
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
On shelves now
I feel like I owe you the truth, right at the start of this review. So let’s get down to brass tacks. Me? Not a dog person myself. Like ‘em fine. My sister owns one and I’m more than happy to visit when I come over, but own one? No interest. Likewise, when I encounter a picture book that contains a dog I am not an immediate fan. I don’t dislike such books, but if a book is leaning too heavily on a reader’s already existing love of canines rather its own writing/art, I want no part of it. Basically, I’m just trying to make it clear that dogs are great but they don’t automatically make a picture book good. In fact, because I work with so many people in my workplace (which happens to be a library) that automatically love any book containing a dog or dogs, I’m naturally wary. My bar is set fairly high. And cresting that bar this year is none other than Doug Salati. A former Sendak Fellow, Salati has several picture books under his belt already, but I think it fair to say that in many ways his latest, Hot Dog is perhaps the best example he’s provided thus far of how he can exemplify his myriad talents. Practically a wordless book, the storyline delves deep into the mindset of an average dog, an average owner, and the cool seaside breezes that can pivot a day from miserable to marvelous.
“City summer / steamy sidewalks / concrete crumbles / sirens screech.” A small wiener dog and its owner trudge down those streets. As she runs indoors to get chores done, the dog is exposed to the loud sounds, smells, and sheer waves of heat emanating off the pavement. Finally as the crowds close in on them both it just can’t take it. “… too close! too loud! too much! THAT’S IT!” And right then and there it stages a sit-in in the center of a crosswalk. Fortunately, its owner recognizes what is happening here. Without another thought they leap from taxi to train to ferry. They walk boardwalks on an island “wild and long and low” and the little dog is allowed to run as much as it likes in the sand by the shore. Finally the two return home to a city that has cooled off after the long day, and back in their apartment they fall asleep and dream of seals and sea.
One could argue that all books are uniquely designed to give their readers special insight into the thoughts and feelings of folks unlike themselves. But it’s picture books that do this especially, particularly well. It isn’t just the fact that they are built to appeal to the youngest of readers. Much of the credit has to be given over to the fact that when combined correctly, the mix of image and text is uniquely capable of producing empathetic reactions in readers, young OR old. In the case of Hot Dog you can almost feel your own internal temperature rising. At the beginning of the book Salati illustrates his pages with bright sunlight and a combination of summertime reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. The panels on the pages are packed tight with other people or loud raucous sounds. It just builds and builds until you come to the magnificent image of a hot sun blazing on a city street between two rows of buildings. Everything at this point is a bleached orange, and one little dog in the middle of the street has had Enough with a capital “E”. This dog has been pushed past the limits of canine endurance and by refusing to budge it almost single-handedly cools the very colors of the pages down a notch. I felt everything this dog felt, and much of that was due to the images. It is notable, then, that when the scenery starts to change to the seaside, I started paying more attention to the cooling affect of the words. Sure the picture were now awash in blues and greens but listen to this text: “unfolding sky, a salty breeze / a welcome whiff of someplace new / an island … wild and long and low.” You don’t even have to see the pictures to understand that things are different here. And that reliance on words continues when the duo return to the city, so that by the time you reach the text that says, “everyone cools down” you truly believe it.
But there’s another aspect of this book that I want to highlight and it has nothing to do with invoking nature’s breezes. At no point does Salati ever identify the city that the woman and her dog live in. I suppose it could be anywhere since it doesn’t feature any grandiose landmarks. Even so, I lived in Manhattan for eleven years and it wasn’t hard for me to figure out that what we had here was a NYC landscape, pure and simple. I can’t really explain why I felt this way. It was something about how Salati rendered his town. To live in NYC is to take all its problems and blessings at once. Only a resident could understand that a crowded subway ride home after a long day can feel uniquely wonderful. Or that a stroll through a park at night is beautiful in and of itself. The woman who owns the dog doesn’t even have an elevator, as far as I can tell. But when she walks up the steps and has her supper in her tiny apartment, every part of that place from the design of the range to the style of the radiator felt 100% authentic.
For my part, the thing that struck me about the book right from the get go was the way in which you empathize with this little dog. You feel the heat that it’s experiencing. The loud sounds. The crowded streets. Is it possible to convey sensory overload through the printed page? If so, Salati has mastered it. By the time the dog has had enough and has checked out, you are 100% on board with it. All you want is to be picked up and taken somewhere cool with fresh air and very few people. This may explain why I actually had the physical sensation of feeling the temperature drop as I continued on with the story. If Salati can make you feel the overwhelming heat of steaming city streets, he’s just as clever at invoking seaside calm and that cool that can only come from wind that has traveled a far distance over miles and miles of sea. On top of all that, however, this book acts as an elegant paean to animal care. No one can read this and not wish to do everything in their power to help this little dog. Which may explain some of the reactions my co-workers had to it.
If you’ll recall, I mentioned earlier that there are a fair number of dog lovers at my workplace. Well, some of them saw Hot Dog firsthand and to my surprise their reactions were not that of love and adoration. Whyever not? Well, much of it has to do with the earliest parts of this book. There is a moment on page four when the dog’s owner ties it up outside a post office so that she can drop off her mail and, later, on page six she does the same thing while dropping off her dry cleaning. Now, I would point out that the entire reason Salati has done this is (a) realism (people really and truly do tie their dogs up outside of shops, especially in busy cities where you might not have someone at home to watch your pup while you’re out) and (b) to build up the stress and heat in the poor pooch that will, inevitably, lead to its nervous collapse and need for cool winds and dipping temperatures. Even so, I sympathize with dog owners who find these kinds of scenes painful. There is this idea that to depict something in a picture book is to promote it. I’d argue that this book is a brilliant example of arguing the opposite. What the owner in this book does is wrong, and it takes the rest of the title to show how one might go about making things right. I’ll finally also note that another objection I’ve heard to the title is that it features characters that are uniquely privileged. Once the owner realizes that her doggie is hot, she takes at least three different modes of travel to get out of the city and to a distant island. Lovely, but not something we can all do when we want to treat someone we love. And so, I acknowledge here and now that while the book has lovely aspects, it does see the world through a very specific kind of lens.
I’m not a dog person. But I don’t have to be to enjoy this book. All I have to be is the kind of person who is capable of feeling for another living creature when the world is hard. The joy of Hot Dog is that at its heart it’s a story about listening to the voiceless when they’re trying to tell you something. We all need an escape sometimes. Some of us are lucky enough to acquire one and, when we do, that becomes worthy of telling in a story. Call it aspirational or just plain decent. Whatever you call it, Hot Dog is its spokesperson. A tale of making things right with the small furry ones you love.
On shelves now.
Source: Copy borrowed from library for review.
Listen to Doug Salati himself describe the book:
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2022, Reviews, Reviews 2022
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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