Meet Alexandra Day & Good Dog Carl

Goodnight, Good Dog Carl

In about 1983 my husband and I saw a nineteenth-century cartoon by the great German illustrator Lothar Meggendorfer in a Zurich bookshop window. It showed a dog being left to guard a baby, who falls out of its cradle. The dog calls vainly for help, but does managed to help the baby to get back into its cradle before the adult returns. This struck us as an idea with potential, and from that seed grew "Good Dog, Carl."

We liked, and thought children would like, the idea of getting away with activities of which parents had no knowledge and of which they probably wouldn’t approve. We also liked portraying the natural comradeship between children and animals, humorously celebrating dogs’ intelligence.

Of the two dogs we had at the time, our Rottweiler, Tobler, seemed perfect for the hero of the story, He was loving and gentle, and big enough for the baby to ride on his back. Because of his breed and strength, he also symbolized admirably the touching trustworthiness that we humans have come to expect of our good dogs.

Toby, as he was usually called, was the first of our “Carls.” He was the runt of his litter, but he won our hearts and grew to fulfill our intuition about his sweet nature. He was the model for the first four Carl books, and when he died we missed him so much that we rushed to get another Rottweiler to carry on the tradition. We chose a puppy of exceptional beauty and named him Arambarri. Arambarri was a fine model, starting with the puppy in "Carl’s Afternoon in the Park", and posed patiently with children for "Carl’s Masquerade" and "Carl Goes to Daycare". He, like his successors, was named after a jai alai player -this Basque ball game being a favorite sport of our family.

When Arambarri died at the young age of four, we found, through friends who were knowledgeable about the breed, a wonderful puppy whom we named Zabala. He was endowed with intelligence and good nature. He was handsome and graceful. He loved people, especially children, and his patience when surrounded by a crowd, which he was at his book signings, was wonderful. He was a perfect Carl.

We grieved for Zabala’s too early death at eight and couldn’t see how we could find another dog so Carl-like. Luckily, however, his breeder was able to raise another litter by Zabala’s father, from which came our next marvelous Carl, Zubiaga. He, like his brother, excelled in the things Carl must do- understand instructions (Zubiaga could even do math problems, which amused and astounded his audiences), pose patiently, maintain a joyous spirit and be friendly to everyone he met. After losing Zubiaga, we now have the 5th Carl, named Zulaica. He can do math as well.

Arambarri posing for "Carl Goes to Daycare"

CARL THE SERVICE DOG In 1991 I was approached by a hospital in San Diego that wanted to honor a therapy dog who was very important to their work. They wanted a portrait of him for their new cancer wing, and since he was a Rottweiler, they thought of me. That commission was my introduction to the wonderful work that dogs can do in hospitals and other care facilities. Both Zabala and Zubiaga became service dogs whose specialty is physical, occupational and speech therapy for children. Because Carl is already known to many children, he is especially useful for work with them. We have worked in and visited hospitals across the country and in Canada.

Carl visiting a child in a hospital

ABOUT THE BOOKS The first book, “Good Dog, Carl”, is a simple elaboration of the original idea. I suspect it might never have been published if we hadn’t owned the Green Tiger Press and brought it out ourselves. I have been told by several editors that they wouldn’t have touched a basically wordless book in which a baby was left alone with a dog. It never occurred to me to worry about either of these things, and fortunately the public agreed. The book sold out its first printing before we could get a second one ready.

For the next book, “Carl Goes Shopping”, I wanted to take the drama away from the home and selected one of the most recurrent human activities out in the world- shopping. A department store offered Carl and the baby opportunities for adventure in a short space of time.

“Carl’s Christmas” was fun because Christmas is such a wonderful time. The episode of the reindeer comes from our family joking with our dogs about what they would do if they met Santa.

The impetus for “Carl’s Afternoon in the Park” came partly from the desire to have an outdoor adventure and partly from the fact that we had just gotten the puppy, Arambarri, whom I wanted to include. Since we lived at that time next to beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego, that had a train, a carousel and a children’s zoo, it made a natural setting. This book has a secret feature: there are twenty-seven dogs hidden in the backgrounds of some of the pictures.

‘Carl’s Masquerade” was great fun to paint because of all the costumes. For costume ideas I used sources as varied as nineteenth-century German catalogs, French magazines from the 1920s and the costumes of children who came to our door on Halloween. I also amused myself by making up some wild and impractical outfits. One of the things I like about this book is that Carl and the baby are in the same room with the unaware parents, but through stratagems and accidents manage to escape detection.

For “Carl Goes to Daycare” I chose a venue familiar to many parents and small children. Here, unlike in any of the other books, responsibility is thrust on Carl by circumstance, and when in the end he is rewarded by the familiar “good dog, Carl!” it is well earned.

I get a fair number of letters from children (and adults) about adventures they want Carl to have, and a birthday party is often suggested. As it is such an important event for children and offered the opportunity for entertaining pictures, we decided to do Carl’s Birthday.

“For Follow Carl!” I collected a group of children from my street and took them and Zabala to the park, put them through all the various activities of the book and took photographs. Rolling down the hill was especially popular with the children, and both they and Zabala were enthusiastic runners-with-sticks (though one little boy refused to put the stick in his mouth). We gathered quite a crowd of amused onlookers.

“Carl’s Sleepy Afternoon” was an anniversary book- “Good Dog, Carl” had been in print for 20 years. It has a few more pages and therefore room for a couple more incidents that other Carl books. It has an often-requested help-the-firemen episode.

“Carl’s Summer Vacation” and “Carl’s Snowy Afternoon” are a sort of pair; one about summertime fun and one about fun in the winter. I always enjoy painting outdoor scenes and I especially love painting snow. “Carl Goes to the Dog Show” was a hard one to do because of all the dogs that had to be represented as accurately as possible.

Cover for Good Dog Car;

Recently the Laughing Elephant has published the Carl books: “Good Dog Carl and the Baby Elephant” and a new board book entitled “Good Night, Good Dog Carl.” The Laughing Elephant also publishes a large number of images from the books and from unpublished paintings as cards and prints. The prints and what books are in print are available signed by Carl and me.

Good Dog Carl and the Baby Elephant

Illustration from Carl Goes Shopping

Illustration from Carl Goes Shopping

Illustration from Carl's Christmas

Books that become series are often viewed differently from other children’s books. For one thing, popularity (without which no book would grow into a series) tends to provoke critical dismissal. Then there is the suspicion that after the first inspiration what follows is forced, stale, done only for money. Sometimes this is true, but certainly not always. Many people’s favorite Oz book is not the first one; some wonderful Babars came after the original.

Fortunately for me, I have never had to force a Carl book. I love Carl. His antics amuse me, and I have been thoroughly entertained and challenged by the creation of every adventure he has had.

I have also discovered that a series offers opportunities that are not usually available to a picture book creator. Thirty-two, or even 40, pages is a very short space in which to develop character or build a fictive universe. I feel very fortunate that I have had the chance to develop Carl’s world and personality through such a variety of activities, settings and interactions.

-Alexandra Day