By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated April 26, 2010 at 03:45 PM EDT

From Othello to Ahab, great literary characters have wrestled with the classic mortal failing of hubris. Usually, it ends with a tragic downfall, but in I’m The Best, Lucy Cousins’ latest masterpiece (we’re also fans of the author’s shorter works, the tiny board books about Maisy the mouse), the plot takes a more forgiving twist.

The protagonist is a self-involved hound in checkered pants named “Dog.” He grows more arrogant with every turn of the page. “Hello, I’m Dog, and I’m the best,” he introduces himself to the reader, skipping through a meadow of water-colored flowers. “These are my friends—Ladybug, Mole, Goose, and Donkey. I love them. They’re great, but I’m the best.” For the first half of the story, Dog is brutishly solipsistic, constantly proving his supposed god-like superiority by running faster than Mole, digging holes deeper than Goose, or swimming better than Donkey. After each victory, Dog always insufferably pronounces, “I’m the best.”

But like Shakespeare’s jealous Moor and Melville’s loony fisherman, Dog gets his comeuppance. “Actually,” Mole informs him midway into the story, “I can dig holes much longer and much deeper than you, Dog. So I win. I’m the best.” Dog’s other friends turn on him, too: Goose proves that she can swim faster, and Ladybug demonstrates that she can fly higher. Dog is humiliated and reduced to tears. The world, as he knew it, has been destroyed. “I’m horrible at everything,” he cries. “I’m just a silly show-off.”

Had Shakespeare or Melville written this tale, they might have lowered the curtain here, ending with ironic pathos. But Cousins has a kinder heart. In the last few pages, Dog’s friends forgive him and they all embrace in a group hug. “Don’t worry, Dog,” they tell him. “You are the best at being our best friend. And you are the best at having beautiful fluffy ears. And we love you.” Dog is so relieved, he falls right back into character. “Oh phew!” he says. “Obviously having beautiful fluffy ears is the most important thing. So I AM the best.”

Like all great works of literature, it ends where it begins.