What makes a great illustration? It’s never one thing. Some artists have a flare for colour, others excel at characterization. And then, there is line. It can make or break an illustration, but in the right hands a single line, or a thousand, elevates the subject matter, in this case an odoriferous dog, to a thing of pure beauty. Catherine Rayner is a master of all three, infusing her newest book Smelly Louie with an artistry one might not associate with filth. Like Louie however, Rayner relishes dirt – in all its malodorous and absurdly gorgeous possibilities.
The opening pages of Smelly Louie are splattered with paw prints and tiny flies as Louie takes the walk of shame to a bubble-filled bathtub. As anyone who has ever bathed a dog, it’s a lot of effort for very little gain, especially for the pooch. In Louie’s case, smelling like roses and apple blossom is not something he has ever aspired to, and he spends the rest of the book trying to recover his ‘Special Smell’. Admiring the stench wafting off a fox in the garden, Louie inquires as to its origin, and the fox directs him toward an old boot in the brambles.
“The boot smelt good, like mouldy cheese. But something was still missing.”
Louie gets progressively dirtier as he explores the neighbourhood, seeking help from the various creatures he encounters. Wiggling in ‘wonderfully whiffy’ sludge and ‘pongy ponds’, Louie layers smell after smell like a true stink connoisseur until he finally achieves his own personal nirvana – his Special Smell. Rayner does a magnificent job visualizing Louie’s befouled, fly-ridden fur. In squibbles, splotches, and tangled strokes of watercolour and inks of varying widths and dirt tones, Louie’s coat comes alive with scent. Somehow, he is still beautiful, and the book itself is one of Rayner’s loveliest, and funniest outings. Perhaps it’s the joy Louie radiates as he returns home, proud and unrepentant, a haze of stench in his wake. Sadly, as Louie discovers shortly after entering the house, non-canines rarely appreciate the complexity or skill involved in the creation of a Special Smell. Sorry pal, we just don’t have the snout for it.
All dogs smell. Fortunately, I had a virus a few years ago that, according to the doctor, laid a ‘catastrophic path of destruction’ deep into my nasal passages, rendering me unable to detect the finer nuances of canine stink. If I were to interpret my dog’s Special Smell, I would say it’s a mixture of old dirty pillow and biscuit crumbs, but I don’t think I’m getting the full olfactory picture. This is not the case with Smelly Louie. In a visual medium, Rayner plays with our senses, beautifully conveying the very essence of Louie – his smell, his Special Smell, and like all dogs, we get the sense that this is everything he wants us to know about him.
Award-winning author and illustrator Catherine Rayner was born in Harrogate and now lives in Edinburgh. She has a BA Hons in Visual Communication and Illustration from Leeds College of Art and Edinburgh College of Art. Catherine’s other books include Sylvia and Bird, Norris, the Bear who Shared, Posy, Ernest and Solomon Crocodile. Harris Finds His Feet (reviewed HERE) won the 2009 Kate Greenaway Medal.
SMELLY LOUIE by Catherine Rayner, published by Macmillan, 2014
I have also previously reviewed the wonderful SYLVIA AND BIRD