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The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers | Caroline Arnold | John Sandford | Susan Fry | Sweet Peas & Stilettos
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The Terrible Hodag

The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers

The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers, by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by John Sandford

Reviewed by Susan Fry

My family and I are trying to squeeze in one last camping trip before the end of summer. Personally, I’ve always thought that the best part of childhood camping was telling ghost stories around the fire. Remember sitting just a few feet away from the dark, dark woods, shivering as you imagined SOMETHING jumping out at you?

Well, with two boys who are only four and six, a story like that would lead to screams throughout the night. And that would mean a very grumpy mommy on the trail the next day.

So I was thrilled to find The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers. The book combines the delicious spookiness of a horror story with a feel-good ending that will banish nightmares.

Arnold based his story on old tales told in Wisconsin logging camps. Sandford’s pen-and-ink illustrations beautifully capture this sense of history. He takes woodcuts as his inspiration, but updates the look with intricate, wavy patterns and stark black silhouettes. The drawings give such a fantastic illusion of texture that I want to reach out and run my fingers across them. The black-and-white contrasts also capture the eerie luminosity of a forest during a deep, dark night. As you can probably tell, I’m as enraptured by the illustrations as I am by the story.

The heroes of the book are lumberjacks. They wear old-style clothes with suspenders and chop trees with axes. But they are not the only ones in the forest: they are watched by a creature who “had the head of an ox, feet of a bear, back of a dinosaur, and tail of an alligator. It was forty feet tall, and its eyes glowed like fire. It was the HODAG!”

Before kids can get nervous, Arnold quickly informs the reader that the lumberjacks “knew that the Hodag was their friend.” The Hodag helps the lumberjacks knock down trees and feasts only on blueberries. The illustrations get this message across as well. While the Hodag may have spines and claws, he’s also got a smiling mouth and a cuddly belly.

The true danger in the forest? A group of animal catchers who want to take the Hodag to the zoo.

It’s up to the lumberjacks to save the Hodag, with plans ranging from sending the catchers the wrong way to hiding the beast in his den. One particularly lovely illustration shows the lumberjacks riding on the Hodag’s back as they create fake tracks.

In the end, the lumberjacks scare the animal catchers away, and the Hodag goes back to munching on blueberries. As in the best monster stories, the monster winds up not being the bad guy at all – it’s people who cause the most trouble.

And that means that we might all get a good night’s sleep in our tents.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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