Zak and the Vet: When Phonics Books Go Dark

I should first warn you that this book review may contain spoilers. I’ve actually photographed the book in its entirety and published each page below so it definitely contains spoilers. If you want to know what happens at the end of Zak and the Vet I suggest you stop reading now.

I suppose that basic-level phonic books operate within the confines of the genre. Single-syllable words and brief sentences don’t lend themselves to complex storytelling. But the writer of Zak and the Vet has created a convention-busting rollercoaster ride that delights, disgusts and surprises – all within the pages of a slim pamphlet.

We meet Zak on the first page. Zak is a dog. He has a strange head deformity. I don’t think this isn’t integral to the plot, but perhaps sets the tone for more sinister events to come. His owner is trying to make him sit down.

Her failure to do this is possibly the reason she performs a Mobot on the doorstep, the incongruity of which has confused Zak who makes a dash for it.

As he pelts down the pavement on page three, he causes a man to pour his can of pre-made Smirnoff and cola down himself. And in the distance, a red van lurks.

And then BLAM! The van hits the dog. This is where the writer does her greatest work. Turning the constraints of phonics education to her advantage, the stark punchy prose smashes the reader in the face harder than van does the weird-headed dog.

Zak goes to the vet surgery which is where the illustrator comes to the party, creating a genuinely distressing image of a bloody rag. Perhaps the illustrator is a specialist in bloody rags because the next page is mostly bloody rag.

Suspicions are aroused about the vet when it is revealed he requires a poster on his wall to help him identify which animals. In a panic about the vet’s competence, Zak’s owner asks for the prognosis.

At this point, the vet points his syringe in the air, in a slightly gleeful but evil way like a Nazi doctor about to administer some slow-working poison. His monosyllabic manner leaves a little to be desired, although it’s probably not easy being a veterinary physician in an early-stage phonics book.

And then, just as the tension becomes unbearable and the reader wonders if Zak is going to bleed out onto his rag, the book ends and Zak is fine. Although I’m not sure about his owner, who appears to be imitating her pet.

The real twist came when I discovered the identity of the author. And it was a twist because I didn’t think of looking until I’d finished the book. It’s only Julia bleedin’ Donaldson! Creator of proper children’s classics like the Gruffalo and Stick Man and Room on the Broom. Perhaps she was giving something back. Perhaps her own dog Zak was hit and this was her coping mechanism, to commit the incident to the page. In words of only three letters or less.

Any good?