What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
There is a place where the answer to every knock-knock joke is “poop.” Where farts are always hysterical. Where vomit can literally be a superhero’s greatest power. And where the lines between good and evil, disgusting and funny, and absurd and meaningful are mingled and blurred. It is a place that strikes terror into the hearts of unwitting adults and sends even the bravest of grown-ups running from the room. It is the crazy, mixed-up world of Dog Man.
The Dog Man books, for those of you who don’t have elementary school-aged kids or who haven’t been to a Scholastic Book Fair in a while, are a series of graphic novels by author and cartoonist Dav Pilkey. Before them, Pilkey was best known for his irreverent and hysterically absurd early reader novels called Captain Underpants, which featured two fourth-grade boys, Harold and George, who hypnotize their principal into becoming a character from their homemade comic books. Yes, it is exactly as goofy as it sounds. Dog Man is Harold and George’s newest comic creation and the series acts as a spin-off from the Captain Underpants books.Pilkey’s Dog Man books are able to communicate important truths without sacrificing the quality of the story—and he did that by being honest.
Dog Man is, well, he’s exactly what he sounds like. When a rather stupid police officer and a rather brilliant police dog are hurt in an explosion, doctors do the only thing they can to save them: sew the dog’s head on the officer’s body, thus creating Dog Man! He’s the best police officer on the force, even if he does slobber all over the chief and get overly distracted by bouncing balls. And if you think that sounds ridiculous, buckle up, because Pilkey is just getting started. There are evil fish with psionic powers, cans of living spray that bring anything to life, cat clones, giant super mechs, and so, so, so many poop jokes. Seriously, the potty humor is off the charts. As are the adventures that Dog Man and his friends go on to save to the world (or at least the city) time and time again.
They are colorful, hysterical, witty books that appeal to the elementary-aged kids they are aimed at. But the truth is, they are more than that. Tucked within these almost ludicrous stories are messages that are deep, meaningful, and altogether profound. To be sure, not every book seems to have a message; the early books in the series are simply weirdly funny stories. But as Dog Man’s adventures have continued and his relationships with his friends have deepened, so have the messages being communicated.
Every story, or book, or show we come in contact with is, in some manner, seeking to teach us something. Everything we see is communicating information, and the fact of the matter is, the way that information is communicated matters. Pilkey was able to do something that few writers are able to do well: craft his story in such a way that it is rich with meaning while still maintaining the silly tone he’s known for and readers want. He is able to communicate important truths without sacrificing the quality of the story—and he did that by being honest.
When my child first brought home a Dog Man book, I will admit, I was unsure. Despite the fact that I will always laugh at a good potty joke, even I could tell that this book would push the limits of what I wanted my child repeating, especially in places like school and church. What ultimately convinced me, however, was the simple fact that my reluctant reader wanted to read it. You see, these books are brightly colored, they are silly, and they are perfect for both advanced and struggling readers. All of the kids at school were reading them to the point that my child getting to check one out at the library was not just fun, but a massive feat. It was a triumph of luck and ingenuity (he’d scoured the to-be shelved piles to find it while the rest of the kids were checking the stacks) and bringing it home was like bringing home a trophy. He wanted to be a part of the action, and while there are many, many things in this life that I’ll gladly say no to—no matter how popular they are—the more I looked at the book, the more I realized this didn’t need to be one of them. And I’m so glad I did.
The story of the Dog Man books starts out as previously mentioned, with a Dog and a Man being surgically combined. Dog Man is the best officer on the force, and he’s needed right away to stop the bad guys that are threatening their town, the worst of which is a cat named Petey. Through wild escapades and ridiculous hijinks, he’s able to stop Petey time and time again. The story, however, takes a turn in the third book, A Tale of Two Kitties, when Petey clones himself. His goal is to create an exact copy to aid him in his evil plans. But rather than end up with a duplicate, Petey accidentally creates a child version of himself. A mini-Petey that is young, innocent, and trusting. A version that has not experienced Petey’s struggles nor made Petey’s mistakes. A version that is his opposite in almost every way. He shifts the tone of the books, and it is through him that Pilkey begins to introduce topics that were far deeper than I imagined I’d find in a book about a man with the head of a dog.
Lil’ Petey, as this young clone is called, quickly becomes a main character in the stories and the driving force in the narrative. And while Dog Man is still the title character, with the addition of Lil’ Petey, the true protagonist (the character who must undergo a change), is now Petey. Petey is now confronted with a version of himself from the past, a good version, and he’s faced with the decision of who he wants to become in the future. In true protagonist fashion, much of the plot of the books now revolve around this decision. Will he continue down his path of evil or will he choose to change. It’s a decision that dogs his steps (pun totally intended) throughout multiple books with Lil’ Petey now filling the role of the literary guardian, the character providing the protagonist with evaluations of what is good and what is bad. This sweet little cat, the child in the story, is Petey’s conscience.
Over and over again, Lil’ Petey urges Petey to choose kindness, goodness, and generosity. He encourages him to be selfless rather than selfish, to keep doing good—not because you get anything from it, but because it’s the right thing to do. Lil’ Petey doesn’t just help Petey change the way he behaves, he helps change the way he thinks. He reminds him over and over again to look for the beauty in the world, to see past the hardness and the pain, and to see where things are better.
These are such important messages for kids to hear, and while there are many other books out there trying to communicate them, Pilkey does it particularly well. The addition of Lil’ Petey to the cast added layers of meaning to the text and took the story to deeper places than readers were expecting. Through Lil’ Petey, Pilkey manages to teach his readers about the nature of good, the importance of persistence, and what it looks like to do right even when everything feels wrong. And that’s just a bit of what Lil’ Petey teaches Petey. When it comes to his relationship with Dog Man, themes like parental incarceration, adoption, loneliness, and belonging are not just skirted around, they are faced head-on.
At this point, I have spent hours curled up listening to my son read to me from these books. This means I have spent hours listening to him laugh hysterically and then hours more asking him important questions like, “How did it make you feel when…?” and “What did you think about what Lil’ Petey did there?” We’ve talked about racism, sexism, and what it looks like to stand up against a crowd. We’ve talked about caring for the people around us and what it means to love well even when the person you love is continually making wrong choices—and the boundaries needed when that happens. We’ve talked about classic literature (all of the Dog Man books make multiple references to the classics), art, and the importance of being yourself when everyone around you is telling you otherwise. And of course, I’ve had hours to think about why these books are able to deal with these topics so well. The answer, I’m convinced, is that Pilkey chose to be honest in his storytelling.
Whether Dav Pilkey always planned his stories to lead in this direction or whether this was just the natural progression of a goofy story, I’m not sure. But I do know that when Lil’ Petey was added to the narrative, he made the decision to honestly confront the complications that a character like that brings with it. So dealing with parental incarceration wasn’t necessary on his possible-themes-to-talk-about list, but it was the natural progression of the story when Petey, as he has at the end of every book, once again gets thrown in cat jail and Lil’ Petey is left in the care of Dog Man. Rather than brush that off, or gloss over it, Pilkey has Lil’ Petey talk about his sadness and his fear. He doesn’t hide the fact that this child is excited to stay with one of his heroes (Dog Man) but is also incredibly sad that his Papa, as he calls Petey, yet again let him down and chose the wrong path. And then when Petey gets out, Pilkey once again doesn’t hide kids from the confusion and pain Lil’ Petey was feeling when he has to leave Dog Man and go back with a “dad” he hardly knows. These are hard, heavy issues but they are confronted and handled so well because Pilkey doesn’t hide from them or gloss over them. He simply allows the characters to talk about them and in doing so, gives kids permission to do the same.
The ability to tackle hard topics honestly is an ability we need more of in our world today—and we would do well to learn from Dav Pilkey in this. It’s easy to approach art or communication of any type and want to say something important. We have goals and ideas and can easily squish our agenda into our work, brush off our hands, and go from there. But while communication like that is possible, it’s often not the best. People know, especially kids, when they are being tricked and where there is a not-so-hidden “point.” This can be especially problematic in the church where we feel the need to teach the children around us important truths or, on a wider scale, feel the need to turn all our art into “Christian” art. And while sharing truth is extremely important, how we do it matters.
It’s not new, this desire to use our art to evangelize or teach, and it’s often coupled with the mistaken belief that to be a Christian and to make art means me we have to make “Christian Art.” In other words, the assumption that all art created by professing Christian ought to have an overt biblical message. But this mindset not only has a limited understanding of what it means to imitate the creative nature of God as his image-bearers, but it is also disingenuous to our audiences. Instead, we would do well to learn from writers and creators, like Pilkey, who make the choice to confront issues as they arise and to confront them with honesty. We don’t have to force our message—the world is too big and too beautiful and too broken to worry that our message won’t resonate. We just need to tell the stories and create the art we long to create and confront the issues as they come. And if we’re doing that with honesty, they will come. This isn’t to say a time for direct teaching never arrives. But there is also much room for simply telling the stories we have to tell and telling them honestly.
I’m looking forward to whenever the next Dog Man book comes out. I’m curious what stories Pilkey will tell and how many jokes will have “diarrhea” as the punchline But mostly, I’m looking forward to the conversations that will arise from these surprisingly honest books.
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