December 11, 2019

When Molly Drew Dogs

Written by Deborah Kerbel
Illustrated by Lis Xu
Owlkids Books
32 pp.
Ages 4-8
September 2019 

On the night before the first day of school, a pack of stray dogs moved into Molly Akita's head.
Deborah Kerbel's story of a little girl's anxiety manifesting as a pack of dogs is both gripping and reasonable, especially as the dogs are both her distress and her salvation.

From When Molly Drew Dogs by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Lis Xu
Like anxiety, the dogs make their way into her thoughts and her sleep, "restless, they scratched at her brain, begging to be let out." So Molly drew the dogs, everywhere and all the time. "When Molly drew dogs, her heart sat up and smiled." But her art was not always appreciated, especially by her teacher Ms. Shepherd who believed Molly needed to focus on her work and restrict her drawing to art class.  Even her after-school tutor demands that no dogs be allowed when Molly's math problems became drawings of dogs.

From When Molly Drew Dogs by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Lis Xu
Distraught, the child runs away, knowing that "she couldn't erase them, even if she wanted to." Getting lost, Molly finds shelter from the rain in a garden shed and uses her chalk to draw her dogs. But she does more than draw the dogs. She gives them life and concerns herself with their well-being, giving them coats so they aren't cold, as she is, and food, as they were all probably hungry like Molly. The dogs don't nip at her or attack but rather curl up and give her solace. Moreover, when discovered the next morning by her teacher, Molly learns that a pack of dogs in coats had chased off a robber in the neighbourhood and finally Ms. Shepherd realizes the inherent value of Molly's dogs to the little girl.

From When Molly Drew Dogs by Deborah Kerbel, illus. by Lis Xu
It's an apt metaphor to use dogs as an expression of anxiety.  Dogs can be demanding and relentless with their need for attention and care but, on the flip-side, they are companionable and comforting and even inspiriting. Deborah Kerbel's text is astute but profound, recognizing the immensity of Molly's distress and lack of control over her anxiety until she tends to her "dogs" as a coping strategy. By caring for them, she tames them and they abide by her needs, not their own, and offer her safety.

Toronto artist Lis Xu's illustrations, soft and understated in pencil crayon, give Molly's story a delicate texture that reminds us that this is a child's world.  It's a world in which the dogs may be very real or completely imaginary, not unlike her worries and angst. At night the dogs are smoky dark–and aren't worries always worse through the night?–but by day they are pink and yellow, blue and orange. That is, until Molly takes care of them in the garden shed and the dogs are all in comforting shades of brown. In other words, the dogs become as real as Molly needs them to be.

Molly's anxiety, like that of many, is a debilitating disorder that interferes with her daily life. It's affecting her sleep, her learning, and her interactions with others. Her anxiety is real. But she has found a way to cope with that anxiety and that includes drawing dogs and ultimately embracing them as protection.  By acknowledging them and accepting them as friend not antagonist, she will survive and do much better when others recognize her coping strategy as effective for her.

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