By Phoebe Vreeland, The Children’s Book Review
Published: February 26, 2010
By Marilyn Nelson (Author), Timothy Basil Ering (Illustrator)
Reading level: Ages 5 -10
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Walker & Company (January 2011)
How might you discuss subjects like longing and faith with young children? Marilyn Nelson has given us a gem of a spring board with the book Snook Alone. She has chosen the ideal protagonist for such a lofty subject: the faithful dog. Masterfully illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering (Tale of Desperaux, 2003), the story takes us to a faraway atoll in the Indian Ocean where Abba Jacob, a contemplative monk, spends his days in silence, prayer and work shadowed by his rat terrier Snook. As the monk rises early to sit for prayer, Snook curls up behind him, closes his eyes, and takes in all the sounds of the island in early morning. While the monk tends to his chores, Snook faithfully shadows his master, dutifully hunting rats and mice. The two even share the monk’s modest lunch. “Each day was a striped flag of silence, work, food, silence, work, silence.”
That is, until one day when Abba Jacobs travels by motor boat to a nearby island to catalog the flora and fauna. Snook goes along for the “micing.” A storm comes up and Snook is abandoned alone on the island. Here begins his great adventure. The terrier fares quite well as a survivor, yet all the while longing for the return of Abba Jacob. Snook, as we know, is an expert listener. The painting of him poised, alert at the sea’s edge listening for Abba Jacob is heartbreaking. “Every molecule listened for his friend.” Who has not witnessed the intensity of a dog waiting for the return of his master? Pure faith. Deep concentration…meditation.
As author Marilyn Nelson says, the book can be read on two levels. On the surface it is an adventure story—Robinson Crusoe with a dog cast away. This gives the book great boy and nature lover appeal with the interaction between Snook and the native animals that have never seen such an “exotic” creature and vice-versa. The interaction between Snook and a sea turtle laying eggs on the beach proves epiphanous for Snook and fosters the seed of compassion in him.
Abandoned, Snook eventually becomes quite feral—“a wolf-size cloud of stink”—yet he never stops longing for the return of his friend. Abba Jacob’s silence has been replaced by the constancy of the wind, the rhythmic sound of the surf and by the love inside Snook. In essence, Snook’s deep longing becomes the presence of Abba Jacob and the dog’s heart is transformed by this profound love. Better yet, as the author promises, “the good ending comes” and the last two pages of text and images are pure blissful reunion.
The publisher’s recommendation is for ages 5-10. The text is full and peppered with words that are challenging to define; such as: periscoping, fractal, carapace, and fathomless. Fortunately, Nelson’s prose is descriptive as well as poetic. A crab is described as a “robot tank.” Little fish dangling from a tern’s beak look like “handlebar mustaches.” These images bring to mind Leo Lioni’s language in Swimmy—evocative descriptions that lodge in a child’s memory.
Timothy Basil Ering’s acrylic and ink illustrations are Caldecott worthy. The artist has spent much of his life either on the sea or near it and obviously with a beloved dog by his side. He also introduces a welcome balance of humor to the story—especially with the black ink and white acrylic border sketches of Abba and Snook going about their day at the monastery.
Tucked away on the copyright page between dedications is the following insightful inscription:
“Faith is…like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call.”
I heartily suggest you approach Snook Alone just like the rat terrier does as he is searching for drinking water on the deserted isle—dig deeper. Seekers can reach the deeper level of this moving and insightful story beneath the adventure. Snook Alone can be a launching point for a discussion to help children explore the mysteries of longing and faith. How fortunate we are that artists and writers of this caliber choose to write for our children.
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