Do you remember the dreams you used to have as a child? I’m no psychiatrist, but didn’t they seem more abstract, more surreal, more…dreamy than they do now? That recurring dream you have these days as a grown-up — the one about your boss chasing you down an alley filled with snakes and he’s carrying a big long knife with your dad’s grinning head on it and you’re both naked — you never had that kind of dream when you were a kid, did you? Of course you didn’t.
But the childhood ones, the ones that were infinitely soothing and exciting at the same time, are hard to remember. Lane Smith, thank goodness, seems tapped in to childhood dreams; The Big Pets is a beautiful, hypnotic reverie brought to life on the page. ”The girl was small and the cat was big,” it begins. ”And on certain nights she rode on his back to the place where the Milk-Pool was.” In Pets, a little girl’s tabby cat is huge; she balances on its warm, furry back as she might on an elephant’s. Together they dive into the Milk-Pool, a swirling ocean of whiteness (”While he drank, she swam. And she came out smelling like fresh milk”).
Then, as the girl roams around in a mysterious dark world, ”drying her hair in the warm night breeze,” she comes across other children enjoying their own version of this kind of dreaming. There is, for example, ”the small boy who rode on the back of the big dog.” They’re headed for the Bone Gardens, where ”he played while his dog gnawed.” Other children choose to visit the Hamster Holes (cavernous depths in soft, maroon-red earth) or to sit quietly by Cricket Creek (a bespectacled lad ponders the gentle waves while nestling next to his gigantic pet cricket).
Smith, who also illustrated the 1989 American Library Association Notable Book The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, draws wide faces with tiny features, and places his children and animals against black, looming landscapes. Pets suggests we all share the same sort of dreams and can delight in the spookiness and serenity of the night. I hope I have a dream like Lane Smith’s tonight. A