Good dog! Norman Bilbrough

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy
Lynley Dodd
Mallinson Rendel, $30.00, 
ISBN 9781877423147

Beginner writers often think that writing a picture book must be easy. But a story – any story – needs drafts and more drafts before it is ready to submit to a publisher. As a manuscript assessor, I read about 20 picture book scripts a year and, with a few exceptions, they read like incomplete early drafts. The writers seem to believe that their stories need not be rewritten, that their idea is so riveting and astounding it needs no painstaking revision.

Many of these stories are not sufficiently realised or explored, their ideas not interesting or original. Nor do they present a new slant on an old idea. And then they often present the story in rhyme, and this is the most difficult form to pull off. The inexperienced tend to give into the demands of the rhyme, instead of those of the story – so that the rhyme comes first, and the story is secondary. So rhyme becomes the dictator … which makes for difficult and frustrating reading. There is nothing so awkward, and at times even nonsensical, as an unsuccessful rhyming story.

Invariably, I suggest to the writers of these clumsy and unclear efforts that they get their story in place first, and then consider using rhyme – always ensuring that the story has precedence. I also suggest that, throughout the draft process, they keep reading the story aloud to see whether the rhyme works and the story retains its sense. Or else that they just tell their story in plain un-rhyming prose … . Forget the rhyme, and forget the internal rhythm of the lines (the rhythm that must accompany a rhyming script).

I also suggest that, if they want to see how really successful rhyming stories work, they go back to Lynley Dodd and Hairy Maclary. How does Dodd handle and tame rhyme?  Why do her stories (indeed poems) work so well?

This year is the 25th anniversary of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and, so far, a million copies have been sold. This was the very first of the series, and it’s still a charming read. For adults, that is. A child, I think, would be completely beguiled.

My eldest son – a sparse and reluctant reader, who much preferred the accessibility of television – met Hairy Maclary at school, and remembers the dog with a chuckle. Hairy, though not a recognisable breed, is essentially friendly and optimistic, he inhabits a familiar suburban culture, and he is … very doggy. Hairy’s adventure is a kind of a poem, and the story’s poetic vehicle more easily reached the mind of a reluctant reader. My son’s imagination was captured.

So, compared to the majority of manuscripts I read, and the picture books I review, what makes Hairy Maclary different? Or, more specifically, what makes this book – first published in 1983 – so good?

To put it simply, it’s real, it’s various – with a new situation on each page – and it presents a wonderful contrast of characters, characters who manifest in the pictures in their own distinct anatomy. Not only are these characters and their exploits easily and joyously identifiable, but a young reader is able to empathise with them through their predilection for mischief. And then there’s the rhyme, that subtle yet awful dictator. It never obtrudes: a reader is, foremost, aware of the story, and the rhyme doesn’t muscle awkwardly in.

Generally the content of children’s books (from the point of view of an adult) seems slight. Hairy Maclary is about a dog and his mates going out for a dog-explore. They meet an extra scary cat – and they take off home. To bed, in the case of the lead character. So what? one might ask. But it’s dramatic: the scene is set up for a surprise, and the surprise is real, even quite frightening – and this is where the illustration of the cat, Scarface Claw, really pulls its weight.

A good picture book, a resounding picture book, needs to be a successful marriage of illustrations and text. The illustration should not just repeat the text, mimic it, but should extend it, perhaps create its own diverting secondary storyline. It must confirm the main story, and add new material. Animal characters are beloved by aspiring picture book writers, who almost always make them speak, mainly in order to carry the story. Dodd is so good an illustrator that her four-legged characters don’t need to vocalise – her pictures do the talking. Hairy Maclary is a wonderful marriage of illustration and text.

So it’s an accessible story that, while retaining an essential familiarity (the dogs issue from familiar suburban houses), includes that surprise. A young reader might learn that dogs can be scared of certain cats. That even an apparently formidable pack of dogs can turn tail when challenged by an alpha cat.

Dogs are domestic; cats are too: perhaps the most familiar animals in a child’s world. So when they appear as protagonists, they reinforce a child’s sense of the world closest to them, in terms of environment and culture. And they discover that it’s possible to have vicarious adventures through the medium of a dog, or cat, in this intimate and reassuring world.

Dodd utilises other characters, as well as Hairy, in other books. She sends a bunch of dogs into a pond, and gets Schnitzel von Krumm up a tree. She arranges for Scarface to meet the animal he most fears, and she lets Slinky Malinki trash a house. And Hairy ends up as a scruffy cat in a cat show.

Dodd doesn’t pull her punches; she’s not necessarily nice … but she’s real. Now in her late 60s, she has, according to publisher Ann Mallinson, “millions of ideas”, and no thought of retiring. Her books sell well in the UK and Australia, but have yet to break into the US market, where, says Mallinson, the sense of humour is quite different. And the number of drafts Dodd’s stories might go through before she is satisfied with them? As many as 22.

 

Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer, reviewer and manuscript assessor. 

 

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Posted in Children, Literature and Review
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