When the Kate Greenaway medal for illustrated children’s books was announced the other week I was a little astounded; Jon Klassen’s instant classic I Want my Hat Back had been passed over. Surely there was nothing else out there to match the elegant wit of Klassen’s hat based comedy sequel? Turns out it’s been an absolute corker of a year for picture books. On a shortlist including Helen Oxenbury, Rebecca Cobb and Chris Haughton was another book that stood out in a very different way: Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog.
I’d seen some images from Black Dog on Pinterest, and had it marked as something interesting to check out. But I wasn’t exactly in a rush. Then I finally picked it up in the local library the other day, and immediately realised what I was missing. Here was a picture book of the old school, a piece of pure craft painstakingly created with layers of egg tempera. It’s created with such artistry and packed with so many delicious details, that you really have to hold it in your hands to fully appreciate it.
As another busy day dawns in the Hope household, the morning routine is rudely interrupted when Mr Hope spots a black dog ‘the size of a Tiger’ outside the window of his tall crooked house. He is so alarmed that he drops his toast in the cat’s water bowl. And as the other members of the family get up and see the dog, their their increasing fear sees the dog grow in size until it has grown to monstrous proportions.
The only member of the family not to be spooked is the youngest daughter, Small (‘for short’). She gets suited and booted and heads out into the snow to face the beast, leading it with a song down to the local park and back again. Her fearlessness has the opposite effect, reducing the black dog to the size of a plate.
Levi Pinfold uses the picture book format to excellent effect, the page layout mirroring the shifting scenes. The main interiors of the house appear in portrait on the right hand page, with the story unfolding on the left, illustrated by some sepia toned details.
As Small leaves the house the action turns landscape, in a series of cold atmospheric double page spreads, beginning with a remarkable painting of the full sized dog mountain staring down with yellow eyes at indomitable Small.
There’s quite a 1970s vibe to the artwork, which pushed my nostalgic buttons nicely. I was reminded of Kit Williams’ illustrations from books like Masquerade or Alan Lee’s wistful scenes from Hobbiton. Also from that era, Pinfold has name checked the great Pat Hutchins and her book Clocks and More Clocks. It’s a new one on me, but you can see the influence it has played in the creation of the Hopes’ tall crooked house with its eccentric wallpaper choices and wonky old furniture.
Shaun Tan is another influence, something that’s particularly evident in the cast of toys who inhabit practically every available surface of the house. The inanimate objects are full of life, and are equally affected by the dog’s arrival. Action figures, owls and Lego men run around the house, their arms in waving the air in abject terror.
There’s a lovely echo too when Small leads the dog into a playground populated by bizarre yet familiar elephants with trunks for slides. Familiar, you realise, because you’ve seen exactly the same elephant peering out goggle eyed from under Maurice Hope’s bed (see above).
But the book is far more than just an assembly of great influences, Pinfold also has a really distinctive voice, with a playful approach to words that is all his own. Black Dog is as fun to read aloud as it is to get lost in the detailed spreads. One particular joy comes when Small leads the dog away from the house, taunting it with a teasing rhyme that helps it back to a more manageable size.‘You’ve got fat legs, ice is thin, lose some weight or you’ll fall in,’ she cries as they cross the river. I hear similar chants emanating from my local Weight Watchers of a Thursday evening.
Congratulations to Levi Pinfold, and also to Sally Gardner whose amazing Maggot Moon won the Carnegie Medal the same day.