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The Bulletin
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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Finney, Patricia. I, Jack; illus. by Peter Bailey.
HarperCollins, 2004 185p
ISBN 0-06-052207-0 $15.99
Gr. 4-7

Stories revealing the inner lives of animals are an old staple in children’s literature, and some of its best-known classics have treated the subject. Characters such as Black Beauty or even 101 Dalmatians’ Pongo and Missis seem to have a more elevated approach to life, though, than the animals most of us know and love, and one can’t help but think that more authentic representation is needed.

And now it’s here. Jack, author and narrator (the book is, according to CIP information, by jack the dog as told to Patricia Finney), is a yellow Labrador Retriever, and apparently Labs write with all the squirmy, blissful exuberance you’d expect: “Hi! Hi there! Hello! Hi, friend!! I am Jack! Look at me! Here I am. I like you. Do you like me? I am jack. BIG DOG JACK!! Hi! Can I smell your . . . ? Oh. Sorry.” Jack excitedly introduces readers to his human pack (mother, father, and the kids Terri, Pete, and Mikey, also known as Packleader, Pack Lady, and the apedog puppies), then goes on to tell the saga of his love for Petra, the beautiful Samoyed next door with the prissy owners, and his struggle to be with her as he wishes (aided and abetted by the kids in Jack’s pack, who open the fence so the two can be together) and then to support her in her pregnancy and motherhood. The humans don’t understand what’s going on as Jack keeps darting off to be with Petra in the abandoned building where she’s holed up, but it’s Jack who saves the day—well, blunders around in a way that improves things—when his Packleader injures himself in an accident in that abandoned building, just before its demolition begins.

The narrative in this British import is perfectly pitched. There’s just enough human understanding to advance the plot and to make Jack’s viewpoint understandable (a dog-to-human glossary is included for those who need additional assistance) but Jack’s world remains earthily, comically doggy. He’s much more focused on human body language than human verbal expressions (the former he reads with keen accuracy, but he braggingly repeats the verbal assessment of his humans that “I am very Thick. I am very very Thick”). His life is arranged according to canine priorities and ruled mainly by his love for his pack, his interest in food, the exciting things he can smell, and the wonders of pee and poop (Jack gets very sad when people shut him out of the bathroom, noting that Packleader “is doing a lovely long Wet Message. Why will he not let me smell it? It must be a very wonderful Message, full of Bigness and Loudness”). Changes in font size convey the emphasis that would ordinarily be expressed in extra canine bounce or shamefaced wilting to the floor; disdainful footnotes from the family cats, who refer to Jack (with some justice) as “the Big Yellow Stupid,” run throughout, offering their own sardonically funny view of the multispecies household and cross-cultural confusion.

Often books that achieve a truly clever narrative voice find it difficult to give it sufficient plot to justify a novel, but Finney gives Jack adventure enough to be worth talking about as well as even a bit of character development (formerly a dog who throws up in fear at the snarl of a little terrier, Jack bravely joins in the defense of his pack in the face of the marauding “metal monsters” of the demolition crew), without turning Jack into a Lassie-esque superdog (“What is a ‘Lassie’? Food, maybe?”). Dynamic little line drawings scattered through the text add to the allure this will have for young readers, but it would also be a hilarious readaloud for those willing to shed their inhibitions and run with—well, not the wolves, but a somewhat dorky and very lovable Lab.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Sheila Moxley from I, Jack ©2004. Used by permission of HarperCollins Children's Books.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2004.