Friday, April 25, 2008

Stella, Unleashed: Poetry Book Review

Just last week Janet Wong put me in touch with children’s picture book author Linda Ashman. Janet wasn't aware at the time that Linda is one of my favorite authors. I love her books in verse--especially Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs and Rub-A-Dub Sub. I often give these two books as gifts to parents of newborns.

I will write more about Linda’s picture books in verse in the future. Today I want to focus on her most recent book, Stella, Unleashed: Notes from the Doghouse. Linda sent me a copy of the book in the mail recently. I couldn’t wait to review it for Wild Rose Reader!

Written by
Linda Ashman
Illustrated by
Paul Meisel
Sterling, 2008

Stella, Unleashed is a collection of dog poems told from the perspective of Stella, a canine. It contains twenty-nine poems organized under the following headings: A Bit About Me, Meet My Family, Around the House, Trouble!, Out & About, The Neighborhood Pack, and Final Notes. In this book, Stella tells readers about her life, the family she lives with, her surroundings, and other canines she knows. Stella, Unleashed is sure to appeal not only to dog owners--but to most children who enjoy rhythmic, rhyming poetry of a light nature. There’s plenty of humor in both Ashman’s text and Paul Meisel’s illustrations. Poems and pictures combine to set the perfect tone in this cheerful celebration of "dogginess."

The book opens with the poem Lost & Found in which Stella, who is living in a shelter, describes how she chose a family (with three children) that she wanted to live with.

From Lost & Found

Metal bars.
A cold, hard floor.
No window seat.
No doggy door.

Countless strangers come to call--
I listened,
and sniffed them all…

But Stella turns away from all the prospective people who might adopt her until…one day she catches a whiff of a young boy who smells of candy, grass, and cake. It’s love at first lick.

A boy knelt down.
I licked his face.
He rubbed my head.
I’d found my place.

That’s how I chose this family.
Not perfect, no.

Except for me.

Stella goes on to explain how she got her name. She informs us about the different members of her family: the boy who is her “best buddy”; the girl who is a “drama queen” and likes to include Stella in her imaginative play; the baby who wails, drools, can’t be trusted near tails--and is “Best when confined to a chair”; the mom and dad who are rather clueless and can’t read Stella’s signals.

She also informs us about the family’s others pets. Stella envies the acrobatic cat that walks on tabletops; pities the poor fish that must swim around all day in a bowl and eat food that’s worse than kibble, and gets dizzy watching the energetic mouse racing around on its wheel. In Dispatch from the Neighborhood, Stella gives us the scoop on what the neighborhood dogs are up to--digging holes in a lawn, getting loose from a yard, stomping daffodils.

There are lots of funny poems in this collection to get kids chuckling. In The Bow-Wow Boutique, Stella explains exactly how she feels about the things that her owners might purchase for her at a store that sells rhinestone-studded collars and fancy dog apparel.

From The Bow-Wow Boutique

But buy that “darling” sweater
with the bows and sparkly threads--
I’ll roll it in the compost pile,
then tear the thing to shreds.

In Prize Poodle, Stella gives her lowly opinion of a prize-winning dog and her owner.

From Prize Poodle

She did not drool or scratch herself.
She stood when he said, “Stand.”
She sat and stayed and (worst of all)
She piddled on command.

Ashman ends the collection fittingly with a list poem entitled At Your Service, in which Stella enumerates the many roles she fulfills as the dog of the family.

Here is the final stanza of the final poem, At Your Service:

Quick to give comfort
Slow to offend
Keeper of secrets
Friend to the end

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Paul Meisel’s illustrations enhance the humor of Ashman’s playful text. He adds lots of warmth and details with his colorful cartoon-style art: He shows Stella romping in the mud with her best buddy, wrapped in bandages by the drama queen who’s playing doctor, over-energetically welcoming a visitor at the front door by knocking her off her feet and licking her face; howling while getting her claws clipped at the dog groomer’s, and snuggling up with children on the carpet at night.

Stella, the dog, is sure to win the hearts of readers--and Stella, Unleashed is sure to delight young children and dog lovers of all ages.

My daughter is crazy about canines. I think I’m going to get her a copy of Stella, Unleashed--because I’m not giving her mine!

Background Information about Stella, Unleashed from Linda Ashman

Linda & Nicky

I asked Linda if there was any information about where she got her inspiration for the book or the writing of it that she would like me to include with the review. Here is what she wrote:

As for inspiration, the book is based on several dogs I’ve known and loved, but mostly on Nicky, a smart and funny black Lab/Australian Shepherd mix. Nicky used to hang out in my office while I was writing, and one day she came in and looked at me with her soulful brown eyes, and I wondered what she would tell me if she could speak. She was 13 at the time, and knowing she wouldn’t be around too much longer, I wrote “At Your Service” as a tribute to her (it was called “For Nicky” originally). After that, the poems kept flowing—I was surprised at how easy it was to think like my dog.

The original collection had 19 poems. My wonderful editor, Meredith Mundy Wasinger, encouraged me to add to it, and to fill in a bit more about Stella’s background and her family (which led to the writing of Lost & Found). I thought Paul Meisel did a terrific job of depicting Stella and her family, and was so touched when I saw he included a picture of Nicky facing Stella on the dedication page. Sadly, Nicky died last May at age 15, but I’m so glad to have this book as a reminder of her sweet, funny personality.


At Blue Rose Girls, I have one of my favorite sports poems, Analysis of Baseball by May Swenson.

Tricia has the Poetry Friday Roundup this week at The Miss Rumphius Effect.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I have to get a copy of this. I love it and I know kids will love it. Do you know Once I Ate a Pie? A collection of dog poems by Patricia McLachlan and her daughter? My studnets loved that book.

Anonymous said...

Prize poodle is hilarious and the others so dear...
Always grateful to you for what you introduce me to...

Elaine Magliaro said...


STELLA, UNLEASHED is a lot of fun. I do think it would be a hit with kids.

I actually have a signed copy of ONCE I ATE A PIE. I heard MacLachlan speak at Keene State College at the Children's Literature Festival in the fall of 2006. I can understand why your students liked that book.

I'm hoping to write up a post about all my "doggy" poetry books at some point.

Elaine Magliaro said...


This is a poetry collection that I think will really appeal to kids.

gail said...

Another book I've got to see! I once had a ms critique with Linda. Very nice and talented woman. Love the title!


Elaine Magliaro said...


I hope to do an interview with Linda in the future.

gail said...

Ohhh!! An interview would be great!

Hope it works out!

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