by Sam Juliano
Though Lynne Rae Perkins’ Frank and Lucky Get Schooled is brilliantly conceived and is astonishingly diverse in its unique unfolding of its domino structure, it remains a moving story of friendship from the moment boy meets dog till the final autumnal vignette when it is revealed that the human protagonist values his beloved black lab’s company more than anything in the world. This was the message too in Peggy Rathman’s Caldecott Medal winning Officer Buckle and Gloria where a policeman and his trick performing dog served as a team to introduce students a host of imperative safety tips, but in the end it was their relationship that mattered most of all. Books about the intractable bond between an impressionable laddie and his cherished canine companion are plentiful, some like Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, William H. Armstrong’s Sounder and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh -the latter two winners of the Newbery Medal- are now seen as literary classics and classroom favorites, as well as prime examples of coming-of-age stories with baptism-under fire denouements. Rawls’ novel, shattering and beautifully written ended with the bleakest resolution ever posed in this genre when a boy’s two redbone coon hounds, Old Dan and Little Ann save him from a mountain lion, but at the steepest price when the former is mortally wounded and succumbs the next morning. Little Ann is so devastated that she loses her will to live and dies on Old Dan’s grave, leaving the young owner disconsolate and grief-stricken. But he returns later to the graves to find a giant red fern growing between them. Some vital lessons about life and responsibility are integral to a true appreciation of these books, all of which can also be framed as slice-of-life adventure stories.
Perkins, an eminent writer who won the coveted Newbery Medal in 2006 for Criss Cross, is also an extraordinary illustrator, and her dual talents are stunningly showcased in Frank and Lucky, which takes no sides in favoring either component. The art in the book is varied in style, density and canvas size but the pen, ink and watercolor tapestries are as sublime as any of the more pictorially conspicuous picture books of 2016, and to boot, it is accompanied by Newbery level prose.
After sun yellow end papers that frame the book’s theme of learning brilliance and a blissful budding friendship, Perkins begins her story with a wordless prologue that commences on the copyright page. Frank sleeps on his side, put falls off the bed while dreaming when the alarm goes off. His subsequent activities would appear to suggest a weekend morning. On the dedication page he laces up his soccer cleats, and after an aborted breakfast caused by a near empty cereal box and a spilled glass of orange juice, he assumes the position of goalie, where he is immediately beaten to his left. Several more vignettes to be viewed across the top of a double page spread reveal that a dog was rescued in the grass between a dangerous circular thoroughfare and brought to a shelter, where he claimed by his young owner, who names him after his good fortune. The author underscores the comparable youth of this bonding duo, by asserting Both of them were just pups. They had a lot to learn, and then goes about the business of documenting that education, first with a thought bubble from Frank on Lucky’s running and then one from a wide eyes Lucky as he watches his new master eat a slice of pizza.
Though Lucky is way out of his scholastic element in terms of school attendance, he brings experience to the learning equation, first with science where he got to learn about ducks which is made possible by a mutual ability to swim. Science is when you wonder about something, so you observe it and ask questions about it and try to understand it. Lucky wondered about ducks. He wonders about squirrels, deer, bees, birds and other animals, and asks questions like “Can I catch it?”, “Can I eat it?”, and “Is it my friend?”, and Frank gets a hands-on lesson in botany when Lucky comes home covered in ticks, lice and burdock. Then when Lucky gets sprayed by a skunk, he provides a chemistry lesson, which includes some experiments. Frank’s mother orders the pungent lab outside, and after darkness boy and dog are then poised to broach the subject of astronomy. Even the “Dog Star” is identified in the star lit sky. Naturally Lucky doesn’t have the human capacity for memory, but compensates by his proven propensity for experimentation. While Perkins masters the art of the storytelling vignette in the book, she occasionally goes full canvas, and the one where Frank and Lucky are lying down on a couch on a snowy day is wholly sublime. The shading and textures are exquisite and color is beautifully applied in the rainbow design of the couch quilt and the embroidered comforters. The wall paintings, red floral throw rug and the winter wonderland beyond the vertical configured window make this the ideal environment for Lucky to hone up his signature listening skills, but also the patience to sit silently for hours on end when Frank moves on to silent reading.
When the matter of hours are addressed, Perkins then cleverly segues over to mathematics, specifically the staple questions of how much and how many. The precise question is posed as: Let’s say a dog comes in from outside and gets one biscuit, but there are three people in the living room. How many more biscuits should the dog receive? Three answers are provided in multiple choice fashion. A is 2, B is a lot, probably 5, and C is infinity, which is a limitless amount. Kids get quite a laugh from the thought bubble coming from the family’s calico cat, and I thought it a fabulous touch: The dog should receive zero biscuits. A similar three answer question is offered up for the amount of hair a dog grows and it is proposed that the answer can be reached by also considering scientific properties. The percentage of the bed that is Frank’s and the percentage that is Lucky’s continue the engaging arithmetic coverage, one that fondly recalls The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdes by Deborah Heiligman and Leuyen Pham and Math Curse by Jon Szieska and Lane Smith. Then Perkins presents a wholly irresistible query that not only allows for a creative entrance to history via a time portal but also to provide a humorous anecdote about a birthday cake carelessly left on a kitchen table with clear passage by way of a pulled out chair.
A marvelous canvas of the inside of a cave at around the time the human race as we know it began is shown in contemporary adornment with Frank drawing figures, wearing scant primitive covering as Lucky looks on. A heroic dog who once rescued more than forty people from a snowy grave in the Swiss Alps is the subject of a monument in Paris, and then in a story that evokes Jack London’s The Call of the Wild a medicine-bearing dog named Balto guides a team in treacherous conditions to save many lives from a deadly illness. Balto is memorialized in a statue in Manhattan’s Central Park. Then the historical digression comes full circle when none other than the cake pilfering Lucky refuses to take responsibility for the deed. Lucky too has had a statue built, but out of Clay and sitting on Frank’s dresser. But that home made figure allows Frank and Lucky Get Schooled to enter the realm of art where Frank is working on a still life. The advantage of having a dog or a cat in a picture and the meaning of perspective and composition are engagingly explained in a serious of visually ravishing vignettes. Another funny illustration shows a dog sitting on a Horizon Line, who looks like a silhouette who is “brought home” by Frank. Geography is confirmed by maps and travel on water by Lucky, who is trying to know the ducks better leads to Frank being exposed to some Spanish speakers, to whom he is able to employ his gift at making introductions. In the meantime Lucky greets the quacking ducks with a series of Arfs. Then a renewed appreciation of Geography in Science as the full gamut of subjects converge in some fabulously illustrated vignettes.
Frank and Lucky Get Schooled is that rare bird in picture books that is equally deserving in prose and illustrations, but because the art is as aesthetically beautiful as it is intelligently wrought, I’d say the book tilts toward Caldecott recognition first. There have been two instances in history -heck Perkins has me doing it now! – where a single book has been awarded both Caldecott and Newbery citations. The first was back in the 80’s and the second time was actually last year when Last Stop on Market Street turned the trick. Now we are talking mathematics. Let’s finish on a geographical note: the American Library Association awards will be announced in Atlanta in late January. A boy and his dog have tentative plans to attend.
Note: This is the fourteenth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.