If you know author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier’s picture books, you know that his illustrations include a wide array of distinctive anthropomorphized creatures but that he rarely draws humans. If my accounting is correct, only two of his books, both published over a decade ago, include creatures with human features—The Little Giant (and even those creatures are giants and dwarfs) and Karla Kuskin’s Moon, Have You Met My Mother?
So, when Ruzzier decided to create a picture book about a boy and his dog—Good Boy, which is coming to shelves early next week—he was serious about his research. At the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection, he studied the sketchbooks and character studies of James Marshall and Arnold Lobel (and wrote about that experience a few years ago here at the Horn Book). “I wanted to understand how they managed to draw humans—in addition to their wonderful animals—in such a satisfactory way,” Ruzzier tells me via email. “I don’t normally have any problems coming up with animal characters, which I draw all the time. But humans, that’s a whole different league. I think those days at the Kerlan helped me a little bit, and I hope people will not think my boy in Good Boy is as awkward-looking, as I always fear my humans are.”
The book, rendered via Ruzzier’s signature watercolors, is about the bond between a boy and his dog — and is written almost entirely in a string of simple, one-word imperative sentences. They start out as the typical commands a child would give a dog: “Sit. Stay. Roll over.” But they become increasingly (and delightfully) fantastic, as the dog engages in such activities as juggling and cooking. The story turns a corner when, in one illustration, the boy opens the door and invites the dog to “come.” They embark on a journey together, and here the copious white space in the backgrounds of the book’s opening illustrations falls away for colorful, expansive vistas, as the pair pedals to the shore, mends a boat, builds a spaceship, flies to the moon, and befriends some alien creatures. By the time they are home and curled up in bed on the book’s emotionally rewarding final spread, readers are unsure who is talking to whom when reading “Good boy.” The adoration goes both ways with these two.
This is a world which preschoolers, in particular, will be eager to explore; grab a copy of this one to share with that child first learning to read. It is an affectionate, never cloying, story of friendship, marked by wit and tenderness, and it speaks specifically to the devotion children can have to animals. Also, Ruzzier’s spaceship is a lovingly-designed masterwork, complete with “wings” and an antennae atop it. “The idea for Good Boy,” Ruzzier tells me, “was one of those sudden illuminations, which happen once in a while. Who knows where they come from. Of course, I had to work on the idea a bit to give the book its final shape, and both the editor, Emma Ledbetter, and the art director, Ann Bobco, helped me a lot in the process.”
This isn’t the only book we’ll see from Ruzzier this spring. In March, fans of last year’s Fox & Chick: The Party will have the chance to read the further adventures of the two best friends in The Quiet Boat Ride: And Other Stories. Just last week, Ruzzier was awarded a Geisel Honor for The Party, which came as a surprise to him at his home in Bologna, thousands of miles away from the ALA conference in Seattle. “I’m not used to winning awards of any kind,” he says. “Since I was a little kid, my typical placement in any competition has been third-to-last. So, when the telephone rang in the middle of the night—and seeing a U.S. number calling—I automatically dismissed it as telemarketing and let it ring until it stopped, and I went back to sleep. Then I thought, wait a second: telemarketers in the U.S. cannot have my Italian number. I’m so glad the members of the Geisel committee were kind enough to try me again. I just wished I had been a bit less torpid, and when they apologized for waking me up, I would have liked to have been alert enough to answer: please feel free to wake me up again next year!”
The Quiet Boat Ride consists, as did the first book in the series, of three stories—in this case, one in which Chick joins Fox on a boat ride intended to be peaceful but dominated by Chick’s anxieties about being on the water; one about chocolate cake in which Chick ponders his own lack of self-control; and another in which Fox and Chick take in a beautiful sunset (and we learn of Chick’s love of both hammers and salami). This second book in the series follows the comics-book format of the first one. And the best story (arguably) is awarded both the book’s title and the cover illustration.
“This is one of those decisions that authors (or at least authors like me) cannot make by themselves,” Ruzzier explains when I ask about the visually appealing cover, “but instead come out of conversations with both editor (Victoria Rock, in this case) and art director (Sara Gillingham). As was the case in the first book of the series, the title of the book is also the title of one of the three stories, and we thought ‘The Quiet Boat Ride’ sounded like the best one of the three. (Another long conversation we had was about whether it should be ‘The Quiet Boat Ride’ or ‘A Quiet Boat Ride.’) We also wanted the cover picture to be very different from the one for The Party, where we showed a close-up of Fox and Chick in order to introduce these new characters to the readers. And we thought that the boat and the two friends facing each other, complete with the horizon line given by the edge of the lake, worked very well with the title to create an almost-but-not-quite-symmetrical composition.”
As the Kirkus review for this book notes, children can follow and enjoy it without having read the first book in the series. But those who have read that one will be rewarded with even further character development. And the front and back endpapers, featuring the bizarre sea creatures of Ruzzier’s unrestrained imagination, are worth the price of admission alone.
These days, on the heels of his Geisel Honor, Ruzzier is eager to talk about his latest project, what he has recently been describing as his “secret” book. “I’m absolutely thrilled about this picture book,” he says. “It’s an unpublished manuscript by Ruth Krauss, the first new Ruth Krauss book to be published in decades. The writing is as good as her classic books and similar in spirit to the ones that Maurice Sendak illustrated in the 1950s. It was a delight for me to take her clever, funny, poetic sentences and build on them. I am very proud of the result, thanks to editor Nancy Inteli and art director/designer Dana Fritts. They both couldn’t be more pleasant to work with. I just saw the final proofs, which look perfect, and I can’t wait to hold a finished copy in my hands. It’s called Roar Like a Dandelion and will come out in September.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.