Review of the Day: Two Together by Brendan Wenzel
Name me, if you would be so kind, the greatest examples of cat/dog friendships. I’m dating myself here but the first things that come to mind tend to be Milo and Otis (ask your parents, kids), Rita and Runt (natch), maybe something from Oliver and Company, and that’s it. Essentially my entire frame of reference is stuck in the 80s & 90s. But where television and movies have let me down, surely there are contemporary picture book examples to fill in those gaps, right? I wouldn’t rule it out entirely, but the fact of the matter is that there are precious few to choose from. Maybe that’s why the premise of a book like Two Together strikes me, even now, as so novel. Just a cat and a dog, realistically rendered (they don’t talk) bounding about the countryside together, having adventures. What could be better? But add in a little of that Brendan Wenzel magic and suddenly what started out as merely a novel concept becomes much much more. Gathering together all his skill, all his talent, and all his eye-popping glory, Wenzel brings to this simple little picture book an artistry and talent bound to blow you away. This is the cat/dog narrative we’ve all been waiting for.
“Two together headed home. Cat and dog. Bell and Bone. For a moment. For a day.” In the woods a cat and a dog travel together through thick and thin. Together, they see, hear, and smell everything in their path. Almost home, the two get waylaid by an interesting toad, a rocky path, a grumpy bear, and a sudden rainstorm. Fortunately, just as the light is fading, the two rush for the house. “All is dark. Home is bright.” There they find an open door, a roaring fireplace, and a friend to cuddle with while sleeping. But what’s this? They don’t sleep long, these two, before they’re up and out the door once more. “Two together on their way.”
Here is what sets Brendan Welzel apart from the competition. Wenzel grows. Wenzel changes. Wenzel tries new things. His experiments sometimes work and sometimes do not, but they are almost always interesting. I admit that I sort of felt he hit his apex with They All Saw a Cat when it was released, but here’s an example of just how good Two Together is: When I first read it, I literally couldn’t remember They All Saw a Cat anymore. I had adored that book so very much back in the day, but now all I could see, all I could remember, was the brilliance of this book. And why? Let me endeavor to explain.
At the very beginning, the color in this book is entirely washed out. It’s just colorless endpapers and the barest sketches of the dog and cat. Then you get this little moment where the dog and cat look at their own reflections in the water, and suddenly the entire book shifts. The dog half is painted in these thick acrylic brushstrokes, practically popping off the page. It’s not 3D but it sure approximates it. On the other side of the page, the cat appears in colored pencils, all sketchy lines and scribbles. Now here’s where everything starts to get interesting. Everything that is seen by the dog, reflects its painted style, and everything the cat sees reflects its pencils. I’m sure that there may even be some scientific reasoning behind why the dog looks one way or the cat another, but suffice to say that this tendency to equate their interpretations of the world around them through their own artistic mediums is fascinating. You might get a bird or a toad caught midway between the two of them, the bodies split into two different interpretations. But then look at what happens when the two pets arrive home. Suddenly they’re both more fleshed out, and it’s the cat that’s painted in acrylics and the dog drawn in pencil. When both walk through the door of the house, their separate artistic styles now seem to meld together at last. One cannot separate out the pencil from the paint, or vice versa. It’s all mixed together. Is that because they’re now under the watchful eyes of their human? I’ll leave that to you to figure out.
This is going to strike you as obvious, but it wasn’t until a colleague of mine off-handedly commented that, “This is a companion, or even a continuation, of They All Saw a Cat” that I realized how right he was. Maybe it didn’t occur to me since I always felt that Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still was the Cat’s natural sequel. Now I begin to wonder if Two Together is the third in the trio. With its kitty co-protagonist, though, the first Cat book does seem like a more fitting accompaniment. Of course, unlike those two aforementioned titles, this book isn’t interested in looking at a range of animals separately. It keeps its focus squarely on the dog and cat. No animal, whether bird or bear, appears on these pages unless seen through the cat or dog’s viewpoint. The entire book is their p.o.v., which is a bit of a novel way of telling any story. I’m reminded of rare books like Chris Raschka’s New Shoes, where everything is seen literally through the eyes of a small child. So often we see the picture book told through a third perspective. Here at least, we have a window in.
So I’m taking up a lot of your time using high-falutin’ terms to describe what is, at its heart, a picture book for small children. Around this point you’re probably wondering on some level, “Is she ever going to mention actual kids in her review or is she just going to keep talking about ‘mediums’ and stuff like that?” First, rude. Second, that’s a pretty accurate assessment of a lot of my reviews. Sometimes when I really get going I seem to forget the intended audience along the way. But see, that’s part of what I really enjoyed about Two Together. Some of the artsy picture books that adult librarians like myself go gaga over encourage us to forget the kids. Not this book! This book is, at its heart, a friendship book, an adventure story, and a cozy tale of finding your way back home to where you are warm and safe and loved (and fed!) before setting off again. And Wenzel knows this. He knows to make the dog and cat look uncommonly goofy. I mean, if Wenzel had wanted to, he could have made these animals look hyper-realistic. The man knows how to draw a dog. But the sheer cartoonishness of the two lead animals actually makes the reader identify with them even more (Scott McCloud has an entire theory about precisely this in his book Understanding Comics that I’d quote to you, but my copy of the book is upstairs and I’m feeling a bit lazy, so just take my word for it). The dog in particular is probably the silliest I’ve ever seen Mr. Wenzel draw, and yet you’re with that dog. You root for him. Kids reading this book are going to enjoy the colors and the patterns, the storytelling, and the ending. They may not even notice how the art changes at first, but after a couple rereads, try prompting them. Ask them what they see. Ask them why they think the book looks the way that it does. I guarantee you’ll get some interesting answers if you keep at it.
Could you show a kid that reads this book that two different friends can see things, interpret things, even sense things differently, and still get along? I’m not certain that this was Brendan Wenzel’s original intention with this book, which is what makes it all the better. You can literally use it to discuss empathy or simply the concept of how two people never interpret the world around them in the same way. Or, if that’s too much work, you can just read it as a fun book about a cat and a dog frolicking through nature. Really, this story is a perfect mix of stuff that gets grown-ups excited (the different art styles and what they all mean) and stuff that gets a kid reader excited (the adventures, the animals, the comfort of returning home, etc.). Use it any way that you want but never forget that kids are the intended audience here. And if this just happens to be one of the cleverest, best illustrated books out there for them? All the better, I say. A can’t miss title.
On shelves April 23rd.
Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.
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.
SLJ Blog Network