God got a dog
by Cynthia Rylant, illlustrated by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books, 2013
Cynthia Rylant is a visionary, the sort of author who seems compelled to challenge literary constructs, and herself, ever in pursuit of some deeper truth that she needs to express. At least she has always seemed like a visionary to me, judging by her extraordinarily varied, generally innovative and uniformly personal body of work. Whether it is the Newbery-winning Missing May, with its put-your-head-on-the-desk heartbreak, the bold sweetness of her self-illustrated picture books like Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven, or the inspired, uncommon poetry of Boris or Something Permanent, her work transcends the expected in order to achieve the basic. In 2003 she published God Went to Beauty School, a collection of page-long poetic essays, each about God undertaking some commonplace activity, from opening His own nail salon to cooking spaghetti. These episodes, in their essential combination of the mundane and the sublime, express a rainbow of grace. In this year’s God got a dog a number of these poems is recollected and illustrated by Caldecott-honor illustrator Marla Frazee, who brings her own generous accessibility to the project. Frazee adds to the flavor of the book. Hand-lettering contributes a sense of innocence. Light permeates each tableau. But most striking is her casting of God in each episode. Rylant’s work already used both female and male pronouns to refer to God, but Frazee takes the plurality a step further, diversifying the personifications of God as much as possible: old and young, big and small, country and city, race after race. None of these updates represents a huge departure from the tone and intention of the original work. This new books, like its predecessor, is a soft, welcoming meditation on the sanctity of our daily lives and the reflection of the divine in simple things (even if those reflections are upside-down). But there is whimsy in this new package, a luminous, bubbly sort of warmth that unifies the different experiences and personifications, softening the edges and opening the doors. Rylant’s God is us, and Frazee’s us is God, and there you have it.