“Every Dog in the Neighborhood,” acclaimed author Philip C. Stead and award-winning illustrator Matthew Cordell’s new collaboration, is much more than it would appear to be by looking at the cover. Yes, it’s about the many and varied types of dogs in a neighborhood, but thinking that it’s “just” a cute book about dogs is doing this magnificent creation a disservice. This is a book that will make children think. In the right hands, it will raise questions that will stretch the brain cells of children from four to fourteen.
During my years teaching students from kindergarten through 5th grade, I joyfully incorporated picture books into my lessons. This picture book is one that I might have used for many different classes—from social studies to language arts and even to math. It’s a story that requires children to use their critical thinking skills. In this clever, touching, and beautifully written and illustrated story we meet Louis and his grandmother. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it seems that Louis lives with his grandmother. (Question to students: Do you think he lives with his grandmother? What is the evidence that he does? That he doesn’t?) One day, they are walking, and Louis tells Grandma that he wants a dog. When she replies that there are enough dogs in the neighborhood, he asks how many. Louis believes that his grandma knows everything. (As a grandmother, I love that!)
During this walk, they stop before an empty lot with signs that proclaim “City property” and “Do not enter” and “No trespassing.” Grandma says she is going to write a letter to City Hall, “a very stern letter.” Louis decides to do the same. His letter asks how many dogs live in his neighborhood. (Question to students: The book doesn’t show us Grandma’s letter. What do you think she wrote about?) They both get responses from City Hall. Louis is informed that they don’t keep track of the number of dogs in his neighborhood. Grandma crumples up her letter and tells Louis that if you want something done “you’ve just got to do it yourself.” He agrees. (Question to students: What can you infer was in the response Grandma got from City Hall? Why do you think so?)
Louis gathers some belongings. A clipboard, paper, a pen, snacks, comfy shoes, and even a homemade badge. (Question to students: What is he planning to do? How do you know?) He begins to canvass the neighborhood asking at each home whether a dog lives there. The responses are beautiful, and there are, of course, some clever moments. At one house, there is a dog named Caboose. The small child who lives there tells Louis, “Caboose is always leading the way.” (Question to students: What is it called when an author writes something that is the opposite of what you might expect?) At the next house there is a man with two dogs, Aesop and Fable. “Together they have taught me a very valuable lesson…” he explains to Louis.
We also see what Grandma is working on as she and Louis eat a snack, and while nothing is said about it, clearly both Grandma and Louis are taking a break from their “work.” Grandma is in front of the empty lot, the wire fence is open, and there is a lawnmower in the middle of the lot. (Question to students: What do you think Grandma is doing? Why do you think she is doing that?) We see Louis as he meets other four-legged neighborhood residents and Grandma as she mows, cuts boards, plants trees, and paints a sign.
I’m not going to give away the extremely touching ending, but know that bringing children and dogs (and books) together was one of my goals as a teacher, and this book touched my heart and brought tears of happiness to my eyes.
When we see the results of Grandma’s and Louis’s efforts, we should encourage students to look carefully at the illustration. (Question to students: What is Grandma looking at? What do you think she’s thinking?) Then turn the page. (Question to students: What do you think Grandma is doing? Were you right in your thinking from the previous page?) I would also have older students ponder the character traits that we see in Grandma and Louis. What are their character traits, and how do we know that from the text and the illustrations? Are Grandma and Louis admirable people? If you were going to be like Grandma, what is something you would want to advocate for? How would you do that?
This innocent-looking picture book packs a powerful punch. It’s a book about activism and about making a difference. It’s also about small steps like those Louis makes—meeting neighbors and getting to know them. It’s about determination and the courage to buck City Hall. And it’s about the practically universal desire of children to have a dog or cat—a creature that will love them unconditionally. If you buy one book this summer for your children or your library or your classroom, make it this one! And if you don’t have a pet for your child, there are literally thousands of dogs in animal shelters and rescues desperately in need of a loving family. And they will provide years of unconditional love in return.
Please note: This review is based on the final copy of this book provided by Holiday House Publishing for review purposes.