As book publishers and Hollywood execs know well, kids love talking animals. So why not use a garrulous canine to teach them a bit about great ideas in philosophy?
That’s the premise of M.D. Usher’s Diogenes, a picture book with cheeky, colorful illustrations by Michael Chesworth. Its protagonist is a “remarkable dog” of ancient Greece who decides one day to be his own master. So he slips his leash and heads to Athens, where he lives on the streets and shocks the citizens with his subversive wit and bold pronouncements, such as “The world is my home.”
Philosophy nerds, of course, will recognize Diogenes as the very human rebel thinker of the fourth century B.C. to whom every modern proponent of “sustainability” owes a debt. He left his home and lived simply to make a statement about self-sufficiency, prompting his critics to call him “cynic,” or dog-like, because he did all his business in public. Hence our notion of “cynicism.”
In his day job, 43-year-old Usher chairs the classics department at the University of Vermont; he also organizes the annual Latin Day fest, at which high schoolers dress up in togas to show their dead-language prowess. Diogenes is his second picture book published by New York’s prestigious Farrar, Straus and Giroux; his first was Wise Guy, a life of Socrates — portrayed as human. In his next book, Usher says, he’d like to depict Epicurus (source of the term epicurean) as a Cheshire Cat figure.
Because “dog” was Diogenes’ nickname of sorts, Usher sees the book as “a visual pun. My intent was to make it a parody of a dog story, because that’s such a recognizable genre. It’s ‘good dog gone wild’ or ‘Lassie on the loose,’” he says. The real Diogenes was famous for carrying a lantern in broad daylight; asked why, he would say he was trying to find an honest man. (Call it message-y performance art.) Usher’s Diogenes does that, but he also puts his nose to the ground to sniff the good man’s trail.
Usher’s three kids are a little old for his books (the youngest is 12), but he says that, while researching a scholarly article about Diogenes, “I thought a lot of these anecdotes were subversive and kids would love them.” The thinker was also known for such antics as walking backward and — one that didn’t make it into the book — masturbating in public. Even this was an object lesson of sorts: When people stared, Diogenes told them, “If only hunger would go away by just rubbing one’s belly,” Usher says.
Producing the book was a four-year process, with Chesworth spending a year on the illustrations. Usher’s own Australian shepherd, Piper, gets a cameo appearance on two pages.
“There’s no real money in children’s publishing unless you write the book Shrek and they make a movie out of it,” says Usher with a chuckle. But “you get to think in images, even if you can’t draw to save your life. That’s why I love this genre.”