With showstopping artwork, gentle text, and remarkable sensitivity, this beautiful picture book captures the powerful comfort and expansive joy of imaginary friends.
There are plenty of picture books about finding imaginary friends, loving imaginary friends, even wistful books about letting go of imaginary friends. But few have plumbed the depths of loneliness and emotional complexity the way Van de Vendel and Van Hertbruggen do in their stunning, pithy picture book, The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have.
On sumptuous, paint-splattered spreads in a warm, rosy palette of russet sunsets and shadowy hunter green conifers, Nino plays by himself in a rustic lakefront community of cabins. There are no other children around. His mother and great-grandmother appear as backs of heads, and his father, an airline pilot, is far away. But Nino’s not alone: he has a dog that’s not really there, appearing in scratchy, loose brown outline—a sharp contrast to the decadent colors and textures of the rest of the illustrations.
This not-dog, constantly referred to as “the dog that he didn’t have,” knows precisely what Nino wants to do. It chases squirrels, jumps in the lake, and seeks comfort in the lap of great-grandmother. The not-dog doesn’t only tune into Nino’s favorite activities, however; it also knows when he’s feeling bad. When Nino’s angry or frustrated, the not-dog is the one being “so crazy and dumb.” When Nino misses his father, the not-dog comforts him, lapping up his tears, since “it loved the taste of salty water.”
But one day, Nino gets a real dog, who’s still mischievous and playful but not in the same way as not-dog. Nino’s dog doesn’t automatically want to do his favorite things, and it doesn’t even know Nino’s dad, let alone how much he misses him. Nino’s happy to have a dog everyone can see, but he’s losing a friend who intuitively knows what he needs.
Though this story is suffused with a wide range of emotion, Van de Vendel never uses feeling words. Nino isn’t explicitly sad, happy, or angry, but his depth of feeling is unmistakable, thanks to both the gestures and expressions in Van Hertbruggen’s paintings. On one spread, Nino and not-dog play, carefree and joyful, while the next spread—perhaps the most striking of the book—depicts Nino’s absent father, trapped somewhere exotic, in ankle-deep water and with an anguished expression, surrounded by a flock of fluttering flamingos. While it’s possible that Nino’s father is truly among the salmon-colored birds, it’s more likely that this fantastic scene, fraught with mild peril, is a product of Nino’s acute anxiety about his far-away father’s safety.
With such gaze-worthy art, it’s hard not to pore over each scene,
and given the depth of detail, those long looks are rewarding.
Regardless of whether the scene is real or imagined, the effect is palpable. Immediately following the scene with his father, Nino sits slumped on his bed while not-dog comforts him, and the two-page spread after that shows Nino at his most destructive, scrabbling in the dirt and flinging heavy brown mud everywhere. The sequence of events says as much about Nino’s emotions as the words do, though “there” and “not there” begin to carry heavy meaning once the importance of Nino’s father’s absence comes to the fore.
But this isn’t all sadness and worry; Nino loves his dog, too, and he realizes that having a real dog won’t prevent him from having the kind of companionship he had in not-dog. In a triumphant, enthusiastic turn, Nino remembers all the other animals he doesn’t have—a giraffe, rhino, moose, lots more dogs, and many others. Scratchy, translucent gray and brown animals surround Nino’s house and accompany him—and his dog—on more adventures, and his imagination is even more boundless than before.
Van de Vendel’s simple lines evoke a childlike logic about imagination and friendship that’s well-matched by Van Hertbruggen’s utterly gorgeous artwork. His full-bleed paintings capture the coziness of home—thanks to the warmly autumnal colors, dense textures, artfully cluttered backgrounds, and softly glowing interiors—as well as the limitless possibilities of exploration and imagination. Nino’s room is full of maps, globes, planes, and rocket ships, and the woodsy environment is packed with wildlife during the day and illuminated by a gargantuan moon and swarms of twinkling stars at night. With such gaze-worthy art, it’s hard not to pore over each scene, and given the depth of detail, those long looks are rewarding. More rewarding still is the gentle, subtle, and nonjudgmental presentation of tricky feelings that will be familiar to many young readers, as well as the jubilant discovery of the joyful, comforting power of imagination.
This review first appeared in the October 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.