When Derek Taylor Kent, the bloke who wrote the Scary School Middle Grade series, asked me if I was interested in reviewing his picture book, El Perro Con Sombrero, I was immediately intrigued. The title told me everything I needed to know for me to want this book not to suck: it stars a dog with a sombrero, a villain cat, and it’s bilingual Spanish? Double in!
First, let’s talk about the facts of the book industry. It has not had a great dog protagonist since Old Yeller. And what happens to him at the end? The poor sod dies. A disturbing modern trend is to portray cats exclusively as the noble protagonists when they clearly make fantastic villains, like in the Russian satirical novel, Master and Margarita, in which the cat, a devil incarnate named Behemoth, is mad about guns, vodka, and has the most hilarious lines. I probably didn’t take away from the novel what I was supposed to take away from it when I read it the first time. In my defense, I was thirteen. When I read it a few years ago, I was terrified and couldn’t finish it. On that delightful note, let’s get back to this picture book for children.
The story of El Perro Con Sombrero is beautifully simple and it has a moral at the end of it. I’m not big on morals, but if it’s there and it’s not cheesy I’m down with it. I like stories that are entertaining, but in this story the moral worked and it wasn’t overly pleasant. Jed Henry’s artwork is a nice blend of mostly watercolor drawings with some digitized artwork and a distinctive old school style.
Now for the plot: a hatless dog is poor, hungry, and sad. His immediate needs are food, but ultimately he is looking for love of a family, an internal goal he doesn’t even know he has yet. A sombrero flies from a shop and lands on his head, transforming his sense of self-worth through how others now view him. Immediately he is thought of as handsome and given a juicy bone by a shopkeeper. Then a Hollywood director drives up in a droptop and offers him a job as an actor. He stars in many films, including what I think is probably the one that smashed the box office – one where he eats a habanero pepper. It’s as hilarious as it sounds. But while he has achieved all of the capitalist objectives for a happy life such as owning a big house, driving a fancy car, having lots of money and adoring fans, he is still lonely and he knows his success hinges on a hat.
The antagonist appears in the form of el Gato en zapatos, who is jealous of his success and decides to steal his sombrero. El Perro is on the verge of losing everything – all of his financial trappings and the branding of el Perro con sombrero. Naturally, a requisite chase sequence ensues as he runs after el Gato through several locations, including a supermarket where they knock things off the aisles, until he traps el Gato at the sandbox and we assume can physically overpower her enough to get the hat back. Realistically, that cat would claw his eyes out. It looks pretty vicious. This is probably why I wouldn’t get very far writing fiction for other people’s children. On the other side of the sandbox is a lovely family, who we should not think is only being welcoming because he is a famous dog, who they think has lots of money. That is how a terrible person thinks, so obviously I am not thinking any of those things. Now el Perro has a decision to make: confront el Gato and get his sombrero back so he can continue living his fancy life or go with a lovely family who is at the park.
Spoiler: he goes with the family. And in a nice little twist, the family also adopts the cat, ending with a shot of the whole family on the sofa.
The icing on the cake is that diversity is handled with lovely subtle touches. Not bad for a book about a dog and a hat.
As a Papa who doesn’t speak much Spanish, I’ve read a few Spanglish books like Little Roja Riding Hood. I liked the simplicity of the Spanish in this bilingual book. I had to read it once on my own so I could pass myself off as an authority to my five year-old who is on the verge of not needing me to read to her at all, a day I’m not looking forward to, and prolonging for as long as I can. It’s lighthearted, fun, and if you’re into morals, there is one at the end. If you’re not, it’s a fun read. But what I especially liked is that the Spanish is very accessible to kids and parents who don’t speak Spanish super fluently.