Bear with me here. When I was three-years-old I enjoyed listening to showtunes. "Annie", "Jesus Christ Superstar", "Peter Pan", that sort of thing. One day, I was planted firmly on the carpet listening to a cast recording of "Godspell". According to my mother (who has far clearer memories of this event than I do) I apparently I tried to draw her attention to the fact that Maria from Sesame Street was singing a song. Mom patiently attempted to explain to me that I wasn't listening to my Sesame Street record. I was listening to "Godspell". As it happens, I was right. Sure enough, Sonia Manzano can be heard putting on some mighty slinky moves in that crowd pleaser of a song, "Turn Back Oh Man". My point here is that even from a very young age I could pick out Sonia Manzano's voice in unfamiliar places. And now, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I am delighted to point her out yet again in the unfamiliar world of picture book publishing. To be honest, Ms. Manzano's first children's book, "No Dogs Allowed" is not the most interesting book of its kind. It would not read aloud well to large groups of kids nor will all children find it interesting. That said, I'm (as you might be able to tell) heavily biased towards Ms. Manzano and she could probably blindfold herself and randomly slap keys on a keyboard and I'd declare the result brilliant. Even though I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this book to every person in the world, I do recommend it to you. Because it's by Maria, and I love her very much.
Iris has, what you might call, a large extended family. Her immediate family consists of her Papi the Clever, Mami the Busy, sister Shorty the Fortune-teller (being a teenager Shorty tells the future by rolling her eyes and saying, "I told you so" after the fact), and El Exigente the perpetually sleeping dog. There's also cousin Carmen the beautiful, Marta the Smart, Tuta and Juan the newly married couple, Don Joe the Grocer, and a pack of Wise Old People who play a game of dominoes, ("they started one hundred years ago when they were young in Puerto Rico"). Whew! Got everybody? Good, because everybody's going to the beach. Bringing along their various accoutrements, the caravan of cars proceeds to go to the lake in the Enchanted State Park. After various mishaps and breakdowns everyone makes it BUT there's a problem. A "No Dogs Allowed" on the beach problem. No one can figure out what to do, but while they're thinking they decides to relax on the sand and take turns watching El Exigente in the parking lot. By the end of the day, "we never DID figure out what to do", but it hardly matters anymore. Everyone had a good time and it's back home they go after a long and eventful day.
The story is cute, very New York, and seems by the clothing and the cars to take place in the early to mid-nineteen sixties. Manzano keeps the action clipping along and puts in enough gentle jokes and family connections to appeal to grown-up readers. The illustrations are by the greatly accomplished why-has-this-man-not-won-a-Caldecott-yet illustrator Jon J. Muth of "Gershon's Monster" fame. Muth has picked up the flavor of the book and gives each eccentric his due. Whether you're watching the permanently lip-locked newly married couple grope, cousin Carmen the Beautiful strut, or El Exigente don glasses and a grey felt hat to play some dominoes, you're gonna like these pictures. The watercolors are lush, the details intricate, and the pen-and-ink meticulous. I did have to wonder if Muth was once a Sesame Street watcher himself. The Papi in the family apparently knows how to fix toasters. Hmmmm....
Now, the problem comes when you first meet the extended family. If you read my description of the plot and found yourself thinking that the number of characters was a little excessive, you're not far off. The book gets a little bogged down with the constant references to the large group and though it will obviously be much beloved after a second or third reading, it's that first one that really counts. If the large group was introduced right from the get-go, it might be another matter, but they first appear when Iris explains who is coming on the trip. The logical question of "Why?", remains unanswered. It's ridiculous without the whimsy required in picture book surrealism.
Nonetheless, it's hard to fault a book that looks and feels so nice. Even if the child you present this to doesn't happen to enjoy, "No Dogs Allowed", this is not to say that another child won't. Definitely take it for a spin before making a hasty purchase. Ms. Manzano has a nice literary voice here. I can only hope that it spins us a couple more yarns in the years to come. In fact, I'd be much obliged.