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“The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have”

By Edward van de Vendel, illustrated by Anton Van Hertbruggen, Eerdmans, $17, ages 4-8

This fever dream of the 1970s may not induce nostalgia in today’s kids, but it might in their parents. All the elements that might spark fond memories, or dread, are here: butterfly chairs, an A-frame house, a wood-paneled station wagon, an absentee dad, a half-feral child, and a palette — earthy browns and greens, with flashes of red and orange — that you might have seen in a rendering of the wilderness on the side of a van.

The images themselves, though, are beyond the auto body league. The deftly painted illustrations of a lonely boy, his imaginary canine pal, and their rural, unsupervised life, alive with the textures of the woods, are melancholy and mysterious. Which suits the narrative just fine: Nino has invented the dog — cleverly depicted in black outline — to cope with an apparent dearth of playmates and an absent (airplane pilot?) father. “The dog he didn’t have heard whatever Nino heard. On the phone. With dad. Who was calling from a country far, far away.” Together Nino and the dog he didn’t have stalk wildlife, go fishing, and dig holes. The imaginary dog jumps into the lap of Nino’s great-grandma and licks Nino’s tears, “It loved the taste of salty water.”

It may sound like a bummer, but here’s the thing: “The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have” is moving and unexpectedly beautiful. First there’s the voice, full of negatives, which hews pretty closely, though not cloyingly, to the rhythms of child-speak. And then there’s the mood, which lifts or shifts when Nino gets a real dog for his birthday. That dog doesn’t like the water and is afraid of Nino’s great-grandma: “The dog that Nino has now is soft. And sweet and obedient. And naughty and small. And everyone can see it.”

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But this is not a story about the triumph of the real over the imagined. Nino’s dream life of animals swells in the final turn, cracking open his world and remaining true to the book’s fantastic heart.

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NICOLE LAMY