Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe
Debra Frasier, author and illustrator
Beach Lane Books, October 2013
Ever since I saw my 10-year-old niece pose in front of the television, trying to imitate the supermodels at the end of the runway, my awareness of the beauty culture in this country has been acute. We took her to the Mall of America that weekend and all she wanted was glitter eye shadow. No Camp Snoopy. No amazement at the 10-foot-tall dinosaurs at Legoland. Only eye shadow. She’s a mom now, with babes of her own, but my perceptions of beauty were challenged that day and I’ve never gotten over it.
In this book, Spike’s owner puts him up for Ugliest Dog in the Universe … and Spike wins. Shortly afterwards, Spike’s owner abandons his dog, leaving him tied up without food or shelter.
The story is told using the first-person voice, so we feel Spike’s embarrassment at winning the contest, bewilderment at being abandoned, and his need to be adopted by Joe, the next-door-neighbor boy. First person is a natural voice. We speak in it when we say “I listened,” or “I saw,” or “I was the one who wanted to be loved.” But it can be tricky to write in first person. As the narrator, you have to be present to tell the story. You have to see Joe and his mom talking about adopting you. You have to see the culprit trying to commit a crime so you can rush to the rescue.
When I first read Spike, I thought “what a perfect present for the teachers on my gift-giving list.” Not only is this a lively way to learn about the first-person voice, but it’s a story with tension and excitement and that all-important hope for adoption. It’s an empathetic story that pulls the reader through to the satisfying conclusion. Spike models creative writing in a way that will inspire kids.
Visually, it’s an exciting book because the illustrations are almost entirely done with blue jeans! From the top-stitched seams that outline the curving road, to the tattered pockets that frame essential words, to the belt loops that highlight aspects of the page, this is an inventive use of fabric for illustration. You’ll also spot gingham, flannel, and lace … materials that are readily available for budding artists to create their own books. (Lock your wedding dress away in a closet.)
With her characteristic thoroughness, author and illustrator Debra Frasier provides many book extensions for the teachers who will receive your gift. Debra’s website is replete with two slide shows, one about the making of the book and the other about the writing project that accompanies Spike’s narrative. There are bibliographies of picture books and novels about dogs. There are story-writing puppets for dog-lovers and cat-lovers. Each of these addresses literacy in specific ways.
Long a teacher favorite, Debra Frasier creates books that readily become treasured in classrooms and on home bookshelves. Spike is no exception. Students’ favorite question for an author is often “tell us about your pets.” This book invites kids to share the written story of their own pets … or the pet they long to adopt.
Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe is about what we consider to be beautiful. The word is used in Debra Frasier’s narrative several times but it does not refer to outward appearance. Spike challenges our ideas about what is beautiful and what is ugly … and we’re all the better for it.