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Harry the Dirty Dog

Book Review of a Childhood Favorite

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Cover of picture book Harry the Dirty Dog
HarperCollins

An Overview

Harry the Dirty Dog is the most loved of the four Harry books written by Gene Zion and illustrated by his wife, Margaret Bloy Graham. Harry is a white dog with black spots who likes everything, except getting a bath. He outsmarts his family, escapes his bath and has a wonderful day getting dirty, so very dirty that when he returns home he is unrecognizable to his family. Harry’s predicament and humorous solution are sure to be enjoyed by children 3 - 8 years of age.

The Story

When Harry hears the water running in the tub, he knows his least favorite thing is about to happen. He takes the scrubbing brush and buries it in the backyard. Harry spends the rest of the day getting dirty in the street, playing at the railroad, playing tag with other dogs, and sliding down a coal chute. He is no longer a white dog with black spots but now a black dog with white spots.

Feeling tired and hungry, Harry begins to wonder about his family. He returns home to a family that thinks he’s a strange dog. He even does his tricks, dances and sings, but no one realizes he’s Harry.

Suddenly Harry has a great idea! He digs up the scrub brush, dashes up the stairs and jumps into the bathtub. Surprisingly, he’s begging for a bath, just what he has been trying to avoid. Young children will be eager to find out if the family recognizes Harry. As the story comes to a close, Harry still has not completely given in to the dreaded bath.

The Illustrations by Margaret Bloy Graham

The original publication in 1956 included monochromatic illustrations in black and white. In 2002, the illustrator, Margaret Bloy Graham, added subtle splashes of watercolorr. The story begins on the title page as illustrations reveal Harry taking his scrub brush and running out of the bathroom. The simple cartoon sketches reveal details that are amusing and not included in the text. The emotions of the irresistible dog are revealed with simple black lines. Several of the illustrations run on to the next page allowing readers to guess or create a story of their own before turning the page.

Author Gene Zion

Born in 1913 in New York City, Gene Zion knew he was an artist when a kindergarten teacher praised one of his drawings. His first paid job as an artist was for painting pictures on the back of his classmates’ raincoats. He graduated with an art degree from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and in 1936 he won a national travel poster contest.

The contest prize was a trip to Europe where he became interested in design and printing of books after visiting a printing plant. Zion served in the army during WW II designing training manuals and filmstrips. After the War, he worked in television and art departments before working independently as a designer and art director.

He credited his wife, Margaret Bloy Graham, and editor Ursula Nordstrom with convincing him to write children’s books. His first book, All Falling Down (1951), was inspired by a drawing of children picking apples that Graham had done many years earlier. Zion and Graham collaborated on over a dozen books before their divorce in 1968. At that time his publishing career ended, but he is known to have shared that his experience producing children’s books was the most gratifying of all his creative efforts.

(Sources: Literary Reference Center Database: More Junior Authors 1963, Silvey, Anita, ed; Children’s Books and Their Creators, 1985; Something About the Author, vol, 18, 1950)

My Recommendation

Written more than 50 years ago, the gentle humor and themes of Harry the Dirty Dog still strike a chord with children today. Harry represents any child who has ever resisted taking a bath. Other themes to discuss are the child who doesn’t like to do something but knows it’s good for him - like cleanliness. Sometimes there are changes on the outside but things are still the same on the inside, just like Harry.

Although some of the illustrations are from a different time, such as mother in an apron and father in a suit, this is an opportunity to talk about the changing roles of mothers and fathers. In addition, illustrations of a railroad yard and coal chute may inspire questions about yesteryear from your child.

Harry’s attempt to solve his initial problem results in a bigger problem that he finally solves by accepting the thing he was trying to avoid. It requires no words for the final illustration to show that Harry is clever and still not willing to give up on avoiding the things he does not like. Children who like Harry will want to explore the other Harry books: No Roses for Harry! (1958), Harry and the Lady Next Door (1960), and Harry by the Sea (1965). A playful romp with Harry the Dirty Dog is surely one that every child should enjoy. (Harper Collins, 1956 ISBN: 9780060268657)

Recommended Books, From Your Guide to Children’s Books, Elizabeth Kennedy

Some of the classic picture books younger children will enjoy include: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, and The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, with illustrations by Robert Lawson.

If you child is ready for beginning reader books, I recommend Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series. Willems has won several Theodor Seuss Geisel Awards for his beginning reader books. See Current Geisel Award Winners for more good books for beginning readers.

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