THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS by Dodie Smith
Don’t confuse the Disney adaptation with this delightfully old-fashioned story — the book is much funnier and more charming than its animated or live-action cinematic version. And the original book makes a really lovely holiday readaloud.
Pongo and Missis live a dog-gone (sorry—I couldn’t resist) perfect life in London with the Dearlys, who adore their pets and their fifteen Dalmatian puppies. But Mrs. Dearly’s old school mate, the fabulous, Bohemian, and kind of evil Cruella de Vil has her own ideas about those distinctively spotted puppies’ future. When she kidnaps the Pongo puppies—and a slew of other Dalmatian pups—Pongo and Missis set off on adventure across London to Cruella’s estate to rescue their family, helped along the way by a host of plucky pets.
There’s enough action in this short novel to keep you on the edge of your seat, and Cruella de Vil is an iconic bad guy. (There’s not a sympathetic backstory in sight.) And the animal heroes are delightful — like Beatrix Potter characters raised in the city or the canine characters of some pre-Jeeves Wodehouse story. And the snowy backdrop of the English countryside has a cozy wintry feel that’s just right reading over the winter holidays.
Sure, there are some quibbles: You can definitely argue that there’s more than a little sexist stereotyping in the story, but for a product of its time, it could be a lot worse. (For instance, it’s Mr. Dearly who does the round-the-clock feedings for two days for the new puppies, which seems quite progressive). There’s a also a scene set in a Christmas Eve church that may feel too religious for some families, but it really seems to be more about kindness and community than any particular kind of religion. I like old-fashioned books, though, so I may have a soft spot for some of their features that might spark more annoyance for other readers.
Ultimately, I think this is a funny, charming children’s story that makes a perfect multi-age readaloud.
Quotable: “Like many other much-loved humans, they believed that they owned their dogs, instead of realizing that their dogs owned them.”