Saturday, April 04, 2009

Mock Newbery 2010: The Problem with the Puddles by Kate Feiffer

Title: The Problem with the Puddles
Author: Kate Feiffer
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1416949619
Starred review in: PW


The Puddles are a family with not one, but many problems. However, the biggest problem they face is that Mr. and Mrs. Puddle simply cannot agree. They have “agreed to disagree” and they do so almost constantly. This, in turn, translates to further problems for their children Tom and Baby. For instance, Baby is called Baby by everyone except her father and mother who, when she was born, could not agree on what to call her. Her father calls her Ferdinanda and her mother calls her Emily. Legally, her name is Baby because that is how a frustrated hospital nurse filled out her birth certificate.

For the most part, the “agree to disagree” arrangement is merely another part of the Puddles’ family life. That is until they accidentally leave their two dogs (both named Sally) at their country home when they return to the city. Mr. Puddle hates city life and wishes to return for the dogs to prolong their time in the country. Mrs. Puddle dislikes the country, can’t wait to get back to the city, and insists that they should lose no time in continuing their journey home. She proposes that they call a neighbor who can look after the dogs. Tom and Baby, being the most rational of the family, simply love their dogs and wish to return for them to ensure their safety.

Meanwhile, the Sallys set out to find the Puddles, certain they can sniff out the city as they go. The two dogs have a real adventure and enjoy their journey, until tired paws and insensitivity on the part of each dog causes a rift in their friendship. A series of mishaps, madcap side characters, and some heavy coincidences later, and the situation with the left-behind dogs brings the family closer to seeing eye-to-eye. In the end, the seemingly random plot points, tangents, and character quirks come together to wrap up into a very neat little story.


Initially, I found this book slow going. For the first chapter or so, it seemed like the author was trying so hard to be absurd, it failed to be funny. However, with rave reviews from authors like Sara Pennypacker (Clementine) and Nick Bruel (Bad Kitty), I had to trust that they knew what they were talking about, and they did. While such a book may not have the substance or emotional pull of some of this year’s other starred review books, it is an enjoyable, humorous story about a family with a unique parenting situation. Its originality might be enough to hook those hard-to-please reluctant readers.

Over the course of the story, Feiffer uses her voice as narrator to involve the reader in nontraditional ways by, for example, encouraging the reader to imagine something vividly descriptive without actually naming the object being described. In another instance, she leaves a page text-free to illustrate something being as “shocking” as a page in the middle of a story with no text on it. In the end, while the plot is not exactly predictable, the strength of the novel lies in Feiffer’s creative word play and textual devices.

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