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Are You a Dog Person or a Cat Person? Or Hamster, or Turtle, or ...


“What Pet Should I Get?” That question was posed by one of Dr. Seuss’s posthumously published titles. Not his best work, but as usual he was onto something. For kids, the choice of pets can provoke a near-existential quandary, one that can reverberate through life. Will you be a dog person or a cat person? A hamster, gerbil, guinea pig or rabbit person? Turtles, fish or succulents? Where will your love go?

You may even turn out to be a tardigrade person, at least if you read Jessie Hartland’s MY TINY PET (Nancy Paulsen Books, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8). Tardigrades, as you know, are microscopic animals sometimes referred to as water bears, which can survive in harsh conditions. This spring they made news as payload on a private Israeli space mission that crashed into the moon; they were meant to be part of a “lunar library,” along with human DNA and most of Wikipedia in English.

Anyway, in Hartland’s whimsical yet informative book — informative, if you care to learn about tardigrades — they are the perfect pet solution for the young narrator, whose family keeps downsizing and who has already given up all manner of feline, canine, avian and piscine companions.

As our heroine explains to her parents, a tardigrade is low maintenance as well as microscopic: “If you forget to feed and water it, it’s O.K. Water bears can go without food and water for 10 years!” They also don’t rack up four-figure vet bills, unlike some useless Siamese cats I know.

The unnamed little girl who is the heroine of Jon Agee’s I WANT A DOG (Dial Books for Young Readers, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 5 to 8) goes more conventional. “Are you looking for a porcupine? A weasel?” asks the amusingly high-waisted fellow in charge at the Happydale Animal Shelter. “I’ve got an adorable armadillo,” he adds. “No, thank you,” says the heroine. “I want a dog.” “An excellent choice,” the fellow agrees. “But wouldn’t you prefer this awesome anteater?” No, she wouldn’t.

And we’re off: He offers by turn, and she declines, a baby baboon, a python, a frog and a goldfish that “wags its tail and knows how to play dead, just like a dog.” “Mister,” observes the little girl, “that goldfish is not playing dead.”

Agee, an absurdist of long and beloved standing (“Milo’s Hat Trick,” “Life on Mars” and many others) knows how to how to build on and milk a fine premise. This is a very fine one, something of an inverse to the famous Monty Python cheese shop sketch, and Agee’s cartoonish but deadpan watercolors strike just the right comic tone. I won’t totally spoil the ending, except to note that it involves a swimming pool, an aquatic mammal and the observation, “Dogs are overrated.”

Readers who would take that opinion as their starting point will enjoy Isabel Simler’s MY WILD CAT (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 40 pp. $17.99; ages 4 to 8). First published in France, it wittily explores the disconnect between house cats’ sedentary ways and the mostly untapped physical prowess they’ve inherited from their big, bad, feral ancestors. “Nothing escapes this vigilant observer,” Simler writes — while showing a black cat’s tail and one hind foot peeking out from under a rug while it snoozes. A footnote explains: “Cats have a total field of vision that is 287 degrees wide.” (Ours is at best 180 degrees, depending how you measure it.)

Another illustration depicts the same black cat napping atop a black upright piano as Simler notes, “His hearing is very sharp.” Footnote: “A cat can hear two octaves more than humans. Each ear has 27 muscles, which allow that ear to move independently to accurately locate the source and distance of a sound.” (Seriously? Who knew?)

When Simler’s black cat finally springs into action, its comic timing is impeccable. So are Simler’s pen-and-ink drawings, which have a scratchy, sheddy quality all too appropriate to this subject.

These are fun pet stories. There is another kind of pet story. It is the kind that works like Kryptonite on people like my late mother, the most tenderhearted of animal lovers, a woman who used to leave Little Friskies out for the raccoons because she felt sorry for them. This other kind of pet story is full of animal peril and animal pathos, often underscored by piteous whimpers or forlorn mewing. STORMY: A Story About Finding a Forever Home (Schwartz & Wade, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 and up) is just such a tale, the story of a fuzzy little stray dog hiding under a park bench who is befriended by a young woman. Wordless, it was written and illustrated by Guojing, whose first book was the similarly wordless and affecting “The Only Child.”

Did I say “stray?” That word alone would have prompted my mom to put down “Stormy,” and parents of sensitive kids should know that before things work out there are missed connections and a scary nighttime lightning storm to get through. Guojing amplifies the suspense and sentiment of her story with the skill — and mercilessness — of a great Disney or Pixar director. Working in pencil and watercolor, she is masterful at using lighting and color to heighten her story’s strong emotions.

The happy ending involves a shared bed and warm morning sunshine, but flipping back to the book’s dedication delivers a gut punch: “For my lost dog, Dou Dou. I miss you.”

That brings us to Sydney Smith’s brilliant and transporting SMALL IN THE CITY (Neal Porter Books, 40 pp., $18.99; ages 4 to 8) which, frankly, I feel sort of protective toward. This is a book about perspective and empathy, but from what perspective and with empathy for whom aren’t immediately clear. “I know what it’s like to be small in the city,” says a child who we first see riding a bus, alone, looking out the window at a blurred urban landscape, isolated in shadow, seemingly lost in thought.

The narrative uncertainties come together so delicately and beautifully, I wouldn’t want to risk spoiling the journey for adult readers any more than for children. Fair warning, though: There is loss here, and an ambiguous ending.

For my part, suffice it to say “Small in the City” is the best picture book I’ve seen so far this year, and among the most moving I know. For the right child it will be revelatory. My mom would have cracked by the fourth spread.


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