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It's Molly's birthday and her parents are taking her in to town for a special treat. After finding the sweet shop and toy shop closed, Molly wanders into Mr Pepper's Perfect Pet Shop. She quickly discovers that Mr Pepper sells some very unusual pets and he introduces her to them one by one, from a 'Zebracorn' and goblins in a jar to dancing ants, a baby musical dinosaur and a dragon in-a-box. However, Molly isn't quite sure about any of these magical creatures. Eventually Mr Pepper tells her that he only has one pet left to show her. Could this be the perfect pet for Molly, the one to make her birthday dreams come true?
In many respects, I like this book. It is a gentle, rather charming, whimsical story, suitable for pre-school children. The beautiful, brightly coloured illustrations give the book an almost dream-like atmosphere, making it an excellent choice for a bedtime story. There is a lot of alliteration in the text, with phrases like, 'fantastic flipping frog' and 'Bavarian Bedtime Bat' which add a tongue-twister-like quality to the narrative and make it fun to read aloud. In addition, good use is made of onomatopoeia, with memorable phrases like 'splishy-splashy' and 'clippety cloppety', which encourage children to become aware of the sounds and structure of language, an important pre-reading skill.
Each time Molly rejects a particular pet, she gives a reason why. For example, the Bavarian Bedtime Bat is dismissed as being 'too sleepy', a baby dragon is 'too smoky' and a musical baby dinosaur is said to be 'too noisy.' The book therefore introduces children to adjectives or describing words. Perhaps children could be encouraged to think of a few words of their own to describe the different pets. For example, as well as being 'too clippety cloppety' as Molly points out, the baby Zebracorn might be described as 'too dangerous' with that very sharp horn sticking out of his head, or even 'too stripy' if you find him a bit dazzling on the eyes.
This is a very simple story, which 3 to 5 year old children should be able to re-tell in their own words, using the expressive pictures for guidance, and no doubt repeating some of the more memorable phrases. Again, this is an important pre-literacy skill. I feel that this is a book which inspires creativity. Perhaps children could be encouraged to invent some weird and wonderful pets of their own, maybe drawing or painting them too in the same bold colours as we see in the book's illustrations.
Although there are elements of the bizarre, these are balanced with more familiar elements. For instance, most children will have visited a pet shop at some time and seen the hamsters and goldfish and animal feed on display, even if they have never seen the type of creatures Mr Pepper has for sale. The excitement of going out to town to buy a birthday treat will also be something most children can relate to. I think the blending of the absurd and the familiar is a great way of holding a young child's attention in a story.
The detail in the pictures provides a good opportunity to test children's observational skills too as they can spot all kinds of animals hidden in the pet shop. For example, there is a stripy tail here and there, various feet sticking out from behind curtains, a pair of eyes glowing in the dark and even a couple of cute snails poking their heads out of a hole in a cardboard box. There is nothing particularly scary about any of the creatures - even the dragons and dinosaurs seem benign and cuddly! - and Mr Pepper himself is rather eccentric in a slightly Willy Wonka-esque way, but without the dark connotations.
In addition to the actual animals, keen eyed readers will spot other amusing things amongst the shelves of this pet shop including tins of Monster Chunks and dinosaur biscuits. Children could be encouraged to speculate about what the Lucky Dip eggs (10p each) might hatch into or what creature might be inside the box that is marked, 'Do Not Shake.' There is plenty of scope for discussion and for children to use their imaginations to explore things further.
So much for the good points, but I do have some reservations about this book. (I am afraid I am going to have to introduce a plot spoiler here, or my criticisms won't make any sense. I doubt there will be any pre-school children reading this review, but apologies to those adults who don't want to know the endings in advance to the books they read to their children! However, in this case I think the ending might have quite an impact on a parent's decision whether or not to buy.)
Although it makes a delightful fantasy tale, I am not altogether sure that this book is sending out a very responsible message. Here we have a little girl who goes into a pet shop just because the sweet shop and toy shop are shut. She is shown a 'perfect puppy' and immediately decides, 'I'll take him!' Okay, so it's make-believe and many children do have fantasies about owning a dog, but even in fiction should we really be suggesting that it's okay to buy a dog on a whim? When Mr Pepper introduces the final pet in his shop, he doesn't tell us it is a puppy straightaway. He tells Molly, "All it does is lick your hand and chase sticks." Okay, so after a talking penguin and a fantastic flipping frog, perhaps a dog does seem rather dull to Mr Pepper, but it does come across as a rather worrying why to introduce one of the most high-maintenance pets of all. Molly is obviously besotted with the pup - and who wouldn't be? Mr Pepper refers to her as "Another perfectly pleasant and pleased patron" which grates on me a bit as he doesn't seem interested in the puppy's welfare, just in making a sale!
We don't see much of Molly's parents in this story, although we are told that they are taking Molly to town for a birthday treat. They don't even appear at the end when Molly decides to purchase the puppy. I suppose one way of explaining this book is by saying that the visit to the pet shop is all in Molly's imagination. She is fantasising about her perfect pet, making up for the disappointment of finding the toy shop, sweet shop and ice cream parlour closed. I'm not sure children as young as 3 would grasp this more surreal interpretation though! To them this book would be purely and simply about a little girl who gets a dog for her birthday. In a world where we are constantly trying to dissuade people from buying dogs as presents, I don't think books like this are going to help.
Why couldn't Molly have purchased one of the many imaginary pets on offer? It would have been a much more satisfactory ending, in my view, than bringing a real animal into it. Do children really want to think of a lone puppy in a box in a pet shop? Some might find that a bit distressing. I think you have to be so careful with animal stories because they can be very emotive.
I do appreciate that the author probably wanted to send out the message that ordinary, everyday animals like dogs are just as 'magical' as the make believe creatures in Mr Pepper's Pet Shop, and I do think that is a nice sentiment to express, but I feel that it could have been done in a better way. Perhaps just a few words from Mr Pepper at the end about what having a dog entailed would have rounded things off on a more responsible note. This could have been done in a line or two, without needing to extend or complicate the story.
As a magical tale, I would have no hesitation in recommending this book and I do feel it has a lot to offer in terms of its child-friendly, engaging language and inspiring artwork. However, I do feel that it requires some responsible adult input, just so that children are not misled about the commitment that having a pet involves in the real world. I would strongly suggest that any adult reading this book to a child should point out that whilst magical pet shops are wonderful in stories, a pet shop is not perhaps the best place to go if you want a puppy and that buying a pet is not the sort of impulse decision it is for Molly.