Kelly Dipucchio, illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2014, Simon and Schuster
Which has a more defining influence over our character: Nature or Nurture? This eternal debate is the central theme at the core of this book. It begs the question, what even is ‘our character’? Is it the way the we interact with the world, or is it the way the we feel within ourselves? By what is our true identity measured?
Two puppies were mixed up at birth. A family of poodles (Mrs Poodle and her children Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh La La, and GASTON) seems to have overlapped with a family of French Bulldogs (Mrs Bulldog, and her children Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and ANTIONETTE). You can guess which is which. This leads to a crisis of identity among almost all concerned, and raises serious questions about some fundamental tenets of philosophy.
The book itself is a delight to read. The prose is pleasantly alliterative, and has a buoyant rhythm throughout. There is no overarching rhyming scheme or syllable structure, but plenty of passages have great patterns of their own.
So. Identity. Is it in our biology, or is it how we are raised? Are our paths mapped out before us at conception? Is our destiny pre cast? Are we simply riding a determinist wave through the world, our lives a mechanistic outcome of factors beyond our control? Is free will merely and illusion? Gaston boldly argues otherwise. It posits that a bulldog can in fact become a poodle, and vica versa. Our souls are more of a blank canvas than a series of pre-sets.
It’s something we all wrestle with as parents. How many of our kids’ problems can we blame on our partner’s genetics? Honestly asking. How much of an effect can and do we actually have on them after they’re born? How much responsibility can we really take for their successes and failures in life?
It’s something the adoption culture is obviously interested in, and the 1996 British film “Secrets and Lies” dealt with it to critical acclaim. A successful, adopted, black woman goes to find her birth mother and meets a working class white woman. It’s a remarkable film, most of the dialogue is all improvised, which gives is a pretty much unprecedented realisim.
Similarly, the single Mum in Big Little Lies was worried that her kid had violent tendencies due to who his father was, as was Nicole Kidman’s character in the end I guess. And we’re about to see a whole lot of genetic destiny on Game of Thrones when Jon Snow finds out his true family history.
Nature of course does count for something. In the book, there is some initial instinctive resistance on the part of the misplaced pups. Gaston finds it difficult to live like a poodle at first, but he tries, and he loves it. Antoinette presumably takes time to warm to the rough and tumble world of the bulldogs, but ultimately it becomes who she is.
The two families meet each other at the park, and realise the mix up. After an awkward and confused few moments, they swap the pups back to their birth families. It looks right, but it doesn’t feel right. They all go home, but Gaston is somehow emphatically not a bulldog. And Antoinette is emphatically not a poodle. Nurture, clearly, is the defining force in this interpretation of the universe.
Ultimately, they find the beauty of Yin and Yang. The two families realise they have a lot to learn from each other and so hang out together regularly, each teaching the other about toughness and tenderness.
This raises a slight eyebrow with regards to gender stereotypes (the poodles all being little girls and the bulldogs all being little boys), but this is swiftly reconciled when you realise that the whole premise of the book is that one can be the other.
Great fun all round.