School is out, and Jo is facing a boring summer at home with her siblings. With no friends, an absent father, a harried mother, and nothing to do at home, Jo reluctantly goes out for a walk. In the town’s shopping district, she discovers a dog that carries a basket shopping for groceries. When she follows the dog into a bookstore, a children’s art class meeting there assumes the dog belongs to Jo. Over the next several weeks, the art students befriend Jo, and she enjoys their companionship so much that she continues to pretend she owns the dog. The art students begin to use the dog, now called Pawcasso, as a model for their work and Jo helps them plan for an upcoming art show. Meanwhile, the town becomes divided over whether Pawcasso should be allowed to roam off-leash, and Jo’s secret becomes more difficult to keep. Jo risks losing her new friends and alienating her family as tensions rise in her small town.
Pawcasso is a heartwarming blend of lighthearted fun and deeper themes. Readers will laugh at watching Pawcasso navigate his path through the neighborhood, stopping to send and receive “pee-mail” at every tree, and occasionally rolling in poop. Yet more serious life lessons are also prevalent. Some of these are very practical, such as the need to consider the rights of everyone involved in a civic issue, like the question of whether dogs should be able to visit businesses off-leash. Other lessons involve thinking about the experiences that others may have had in the past, such as the loneliness that Jo learns is faced by the character at the center of the protest against Pawcasso. Jo learns many things about her own family, and about others in her community, and her relationships grow in unexpected ways throughout the book. These themes make Pawcasso a well-rounded story that’s highly enjoyable and has a lot of value.
Remy Lai’s full-color illustrations are winsome and expressive. Her cartoon style depicts both characters and setting in a way that is accessible and attractive to young readers, but also provides plenty of detail. The settings throughout the town are drawn in interesting ways, with a variety of unique shops, streets, homes, landscapes, and a main park. The characters frequent the same locations, helping the reader get to know the town well and making it a believable small-town setting for this doggie drama to unfold.
Middle grade readers will love Pawcasso, and what’s not to love? Between the adorable and precocious dog at its center, kids rallying their town for a worthy cause, a lonely girl making friends, and lessons learned about compassion and forgiveness, there’s a lot going for this book. Remy Lai lets her characters deal with genuine struggles in a way that shows how real kids face real emotions, but her books never get so heavy that kids won’t love to read them. Pawcasso joins her other well-loved books Pie in the Sky and Fly on the Wall as must-haves for any youth library.
By Remy Lai
Holt Books for Young Readers, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Indonesian