“The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have” is unsettling and odd. Nino (a boy of about seven) has an imaginary dog, depicted in sketchy lines over the landscape. The pet crawls alongside Nino as they stalk a scruffy cat, then he leaps on Great-Grandma’s lap. When Nino takes a rowboat out on the lake, the dog dives into the deep water.
Nino’s father (a pilot) phones from faraway, and the dog hears what Nino hears, and loves “the taste of salt water” in the boy's tears. The mother and great-grandmother are pictured, but you don’t see their faces. This enforces the disquieting feel of the book, as does the untidy, retro, lakeside yard. The A-frame house, 1960s station wagon, and toys are drawn with impressionistic looseness. The illustration style resembles silkscreen with its limited earth toned pallet. The world is handsome, mysterious and unanchored.
Nino is shown digging a muddy hole with his imaginary friend, and the text reads, “Sometimes the dog acted so crazy and dumb that people started to notice.” His mother’s back is turned. But presumably she notices Nino’s feelings, for on the following page there is a big gift box—Nino has been given a real dog (a lively terrier).
But this is not the end. Rather it’s the beginning of a new and bigger fantasy life. A make-believe deer, giraffe, hippo, rhino, bear, zebra, and “a few more dogs!” ward off loneliness and add richness not found in reality. Closing with a powerfully atmospheric scene of the boy dreaming under a full moon, “The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have” is not your typical happy ending story.
HARDCOVER; Published: 10/8/2015
Ages 4 to 8