When You Wander: A Search-and-Rescue Dog Story
by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mary Morgan
Henry Holt, 2013
“If you are lost, stay in one place. Hug a tree. Think of me.”
On paper everything about this sounds didactic and cloying, in the sort of way that might give one a headache and a toothache at the same time. A sniffing school graduate offers help to would-be lost children to keep them safe and get them found. Her first person (first canine?) exposition outlines specific procedures to be undertaken by a lost toddler matched to the dog’s skills and knowledge.
And it is sweet, make no mistake, and not without purpose.
But it is so much more than that. The language is warm and clear, presenting the instructions in an easy, friendly way, studded with details of particular meaning to a child. It is lilting and confident and happy on the tongue, broken like verse to reinforce its poetic rhythms to the reader-alouder. The toddler in question is shown in the rescue dog’s imagination, doing toddlery things that leave an indelible olfactory trail. The pictures themselves, soft and unapologetically accessible, establish a tone of security and success. And so children understand being lost in terms of the dog’s expertise, not the danger the dfficulty represents. In a final spread the roles are switched, as the child, now safe home in bed, dreams of her rescuer in a dream bubble of her own.
Above all, though, this is a story. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment reading this aloud to a group of children, not because it contains important information that all children need to hear, but because it is purely delightful. Would that more books built on a message could be so.