Hearts don't erase those we love
Pencil Dog by Leigh Hodgkinson
We adore this beautiful book about the bond between a girl and a dog. This is no ordinary canine - he’s also a pencil who "always has the most WONDERFUL stories right at the tip of his nose." Time flies when they are together, they make friends with mermaids and wild animals, discover new worlds, explore jungles, travel in boats and on magic carpets.
Pencil Dog is always there to catch the girl when she falls, until one day he isn't. Just like a pencil, he gradually becomes smaller and “less sharp” as time passes. The girl must adapt to Pencil Dog’s changing circumstances and learn how to cope when he eventually disappears.
This is an incredibly special, powerful, and moving story. Although quite sad, it’s full of joy too, and one of the most colourful books we own. A vibrant celebration of friendship and creativity, this is also an inventive exploration of grief, tenderly addressing how absent loved ones live forever in our hearts.
The story would not work without the accompanying images and is the perfect example of the magic of picture books. The text is deceptively simple but, together with the spectacular illustrations, reveals an exceptionally complex tale. The images enrich the story and make it more meaningful. I love how the illustrations convey so much and contain so many visual clues to which children will respond and may even recognise sooner than adults.
Just as Pencil Dog shrinks as the story progresses, the girl grows taller and her hair gets shorter too (my five-year-old noticed the hair before I did). When the girl grows up, we see her sharing Pencil Dog’s story with her own child in a room decorated with reminders of him. These could be mementos of the girl’s adventures with Pencil Dog or from new experiences she and the child have shared, inspired by him.
The girl drinks tea with Pencil Dog at the start of the book and we see two identical teacups in the final scene. The room is furnished with a chair identical to the one Pencil Dog sits on in his house. It’s upholstered in fabric that appears to be the same material as the sails of the ship in an earlier part of the story. The stuffed toy sitting on it looks like one of the monkeys from the jungle Pencil Dog drew.
It’s ambiguous whether Pencil Dog is real or a part of the girl that fades as she grows older. Do so many souvenirs remain because they always belonged to her? Was her own imagination that wove them into stories featuring Pencil Dog? Does he represent the playfulness and ingenuity of childhood that inevitably wanes with time? The girl says, “Days are never boring and rainy with Pencil Dog,” – was he something she invented to occupy herself when stuck indoors?
Unfortunately, after a while it does rain – just as Pencil Dog begins to deteriorate, and his houseplant appears to have died too, echoing his decline. Autumn leaves fall to indicate the seasons changing at the same time as Pencil Dog’s condition alters, and when his outings with the girl transform too. It’s winter when Pencil Dog vanishes completely. The landscape is blue, the sky is grey and the trees are bare - reflecting how sad, dull and empty the world is without him.
As fascinating and charming as Pencil Dog is, the girl is an equally wonderful character. Kind and compassionate, she knows how to take care of her friend when he needs help. Instead of Pencil Dog steering their activities, the girl takes charge, using a bicycle and words to transport them to faraway places. I love how the text is arranged to indicate the different direction and structure their story is taking - embedded in the winding trail the bicycle leaves.
It’s brilliant how the girl creates a gallery of paintings recording her time with Pencil Dog and how her finger becomes a paintbrush when doing so. This is similar to how Pencil Dog draws with his nose. The satisfaction the girl derives from revisiting and depicting their stories represents the comfort of creativity and the solace that can be found in books and art.
As the girl realises that so much of Pencil Dog remains within her, she gently shows how we can still feel close to those we have lost. We might be able to erase a pencil, but those important to us leave indelible marks, even after they have departed. If children are grieving a family member, friend, or pet, Pencil Dog would be a great story for helping them cope and come to terms with this.
The illustrations are a mixture of paint, pencil and collage, with the white of the page coming through in places, and a hand-crafted, energetic, child-like quality. The endpapers are a beautiful patchwork quilt, just like the one we see on the bed in the final scene. The very last image is a drawing of Pencil Dog with his tail wagging and a bouquet of scribbled love hearts emerging from his nose.
Leigh Hodgkinson is an award-winning animator, author and illustrator. She is the co-creator of CBeebies show Olobob Top. Her work has been translated into several languages and she has worked with many acclaimed authors as well as writing and illustrating her own books. We also have Goldilocks and the Three Potties and The Big Monster Snoreybook and love them. I really want to get hold of Troll Swap and Limelight Larry too.
It’s impossible to articulate how exceptional, exciting and unique Pencil Dog is. This is everything that a picture book should be – and more. A brilliant celebration of the relationships that give life its purpose and help us survive, whether between person and animal, parent and child, or the brain and creativity. Pencil Dog is a wonderful, thought-provoking story with stunning illustrations, absolutely one of a kind and essential reading for adults as well as children.
Title: Pencil Dog
Author & Illustrator: Leigh Hodgkinson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 13th June 13 2019